Tripoli artisans continue to polish a 150-year-old woodcraft tradition
BEIRUT - Mohammad al-Masri inherited a carpentry workshop and the profession from his father 20 years ago and has continued the well-established legacy of producing classic furniture until he enrolled in a programme for modernising and reinvigorating the woodcraft industry in Tripoli, Lebanon.
Masri’s furniture is now featured among Minjara Editions, a brand of modern furnishings produced by Tripoli’s wood artisans in collaboration with Lebanese designers as part of the EU-funded Private Sector Development Programme.
“For a long time, we were limited to producing classic and traditional designs that looked almost the same,” Masri said at an exhibition showcasing the first Minjara collection in Beirut. “Under the programme we were able to change such traditional mentality, meet young designers and use modern equipment and means of production.”
“We learned a lot. For instance, what I enjoyed the most while working on the designs was embedding metals, marble and fabric in my work with wood, something I’ve never done before. We have acquired a more modern vision and know-how to adapt to the market demands,” Masri said.
The $16.3 million programme, begun in 2016 and implemented by Expertise France, aimed at supporting struggling Lebanese crafts.
While Tripoli’s wood carving and furniture sector has a legacy dating back 150 years as traditional art and a main source of livelihood, it declined during the civil war (1975-90) and economic recession forced artisans and producers to reduce or stop their activities.
The development programme sought to support the wood and furniture sector in Tripoli in view of its local socio-economic effects, the competence and its impressive potential, explained Julien Schmitt of Expertise France.
“We know for a fact that, since 10 or 15 years, this sector specifically has been facing a lot of challenges. The EU decided to provide its support to an important productive sector which needed it and Tripoli’s wood carving and wood furniture was selected,” Schmitt said.
“One of the challenges was to reconnect Tripoli with the current trend. With the creativity mainly in Beirut, the challenge was how to connect the creative centre in the capital city with the production centre Tripoli,” he added.
Along with bringing together Lebanese designers and wood artisans from Tripoli, a physical facility was established at the Rachid Karami International Fair in Tripoli in an old building designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, where designers and manufacturers meet to develop and showcase their creations.
“It is mainly a platform of services that comprises a library of materials where carpenters and designers can check samples of different materials which they can use in their creations like different kinds of wood, plastic, glass, stone, metal, et cetera,” Schmitt said.
The space has a shared workshop equipped with 25 modern carpentry machines that carpenters can use. “The shared workshop, however, doesn’t substitute for the workshops of the carpenters. It has modern equipment that the carpenters don’t have and which they can benefit from. It is basically complementary to theirs,” Schmitt noted
A recent exhibition at a traditional Beiruti house displayed products of collaboration between more than 20 artisans and designers under the brand name Minjara. Items included a trolley, tables, chairs, stools, benches, mirrors, a rocking chair and a wood carpet.
Architect and furniture designer Ahmad Bazazo worked with Masri on a set of two stools and a low table with a backgammon board dubbed “Jeu de Base.” The set’s elements were revisited in an art deco static, giving them a modern look.
“Backgammon is a favourite pastime played by old and young alike. It is something which is found in the street, in homes and in cafes and transcends social and economic boundaries,” Bazazo said. “It was a very easy collaboration with the craftsmen in Tripoli, especially in terms of finishing and quality. It wasn’t that difficult for them to implement and understand our designs.”
Designer Sahar Bizri said she “would definitely repeat” the experience of collaborating with Tripoli’s wood craftsmen.
“We were both excited and nervous at the same time because we were working with people that we’ve never met before but it turned out to be a wonderful collaboration where we had many things in common,” Bizri said.
The landmark show was taken to Beirut from Paris, where it was displayed in early September at the residence of the Lebanese ambassador. Minjara collections will be permanently exhibited at the showroom in Tripoli and are available online (www.minjara.com).