Sunday, December 26, 2010

Recapturing Beirut’s Golden Age

Opened in 2002 by Souheil Hanna and his sister Hala, Vingtieme Siecle is the Middle East’s first and only 20th century antiques gallery. A veritable Aladdin’s cave of Mid-Century chic, the sunny two story space showcases mint-condition furniture, lighting and art work from the 1950’s-70’s. Souheil opens the doors to his extraordinary gallery to talk to The Polyglot about his passion for all things retro.

How did the idea behind the XXeme Siecle gallery come about?Ever since I was 14, I’ve had a passion for mid-20th century furniture and art. The first piece I acquired was a console by Jean Royere that belonged to my grandmother. Around the mid-90’s both Hala and I were living in Paris. It was a period when mid-century design was enjoying a revival, particularly in trendsetting cities such as Paris and New York. But the craze hadn’t reached Beirut yet, so we decided to return to Lebanon and open a gallery. We wanted to offer both Lebanese and Arab collectors authentic 20th century furniture and “objets d’art,” particularly from Lebanon’s golden age from the 1950’s-70’s.

Why is that period considered Lebanon’s golden age?Beirut is a great place to collect the works of some of the most celebrated designers of the 50s and 60s. During that time, beautiful furniture was not only being imported from Italy and France, but also made here. In the 1950’s, the iconic French designer Jean Royere ran a thriving studio in Beirut with Lebanese architect Nadim Majdalani. Amongst their projects were designing interiors for the St. George Hotel, the Shah of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt. Pre-war Beirut was a Modernist paradise and west Beirut was the most fashionable neighborhood in the Middle East.

What do you enjoy the most about collecting mid-20th century design?There is a lot of research and detective work that goes into finding new pieces for the gallery. Amongst our rarest finds was a low curvy wooden table and stools designed by Charlotte Perriand in the 60’s for a French ski resort. Perriand, who collaborated with Le Corbusier, is probably one of the most sought after designers today. Another memorable item was a limited-edition rotating chair designed in 1965 by Joe Columbo. It was not only featured in a James Bond movie, but was rare because its original leather was in such good condition. At the same time, we also carry interesting high-quality pieces produced by unidentified craftsmen in Beirut from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

Was it difficult to source pieces for your gallery when you first opened?Surprisingly it wasn’t difficult early on. Beirut in the mid-90’s was busy rebuilding itself after years of civil war. Interiors untouched since 1975 were stripped without a thought and furniture discarded onto dumpsters. People also began coming to us with things to sell once we opened the gallery. We once received a call from a dealer who had originally imported a number of carpets to Beirut in 1968, but never sold them. The carpets, some designed by Victor Vasarely, had been kept in storage for over 30 years, all in pristine condition and still wrapped in plastic. Today, it’s getting harder to find vintage pieces in Beirut because of heightened interest. So for the last seven years we’ve been looking in Europe for specific pieces that we can’t find in Lebanon, such as works representing Scandinavian, French, Italian and Brazilian design.

Who are your clients?We tend to attract a younger clientele, who want to discover the furniture and memorabilia of their parents’ generation. To individuals in their 50’s and 60’s, this kind of furniture may appear démodé, because they lived with it the first time around. My greatest satisfaction is sharing my knowledge of mid-20th century design with my younger clients. The gallery also has a well-stocked bookshelf to encourage visitors to linger, and even if people don’t buy right away, I want them to leave feeling they have learnt something new.

All images courtesy of XXeme Siecle Gallery and Joe Kesrouani© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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