“Our role is to somehow create awareness of the importance of urban activities in our daily life and to offer solutions using architecture and design as mediums of expression.”
– Tessa & Tara Sakhi of T SAKHI
The Lebanese design scene is characterised by experimentation, craft collaboration, and close-knit, creative support. It is a country rich with talented designers and artists, yet, due to years of instability, the design scene continues to seek widespread international recognition. With the current political climate and financial crisis, local craftsmen have been struggling to receive new materials or payment for their work and artists have, most recently, been relying on producing pieces with only those materials currently available in their studios. Despite this uncertainty, local artists have strengthened their supportive network in Lebanon, developing even greater connections and room to explore their chosen fields.
Bringing attention to and, most specifically, encouraging human interaction through design is a main focus in the work of architecture and design studio T SAKHI. Founded in 2016 by sisters Tessa and Tara Sakhi, the Beirut-based studio investigates human interaction and the urban experience through a multidisciplinary approach, allowing the duo to explore their own, individual strengths and interests. Working within the design scene of Lebanon amid the current political, social, and economic tensions, T SAKHI has created works which seek to shift how their audience experiences their everyday life. A strong example of this can be found in their 2018 series “Holidays in the Sun” which has reinterpreted security barriers to create public seating and vertical gardens, re-imagining the function and overall aesthetic of objects found around the city. Their more recent experiential work similarly explores human and spatial relationships, creating multi-purpose pieces which bring people and their experiences of shared spaces together.
T SAKHI’s most recent collection, “Tasting Threads”, sees the studio collaborate with Venetian craftspeople to create a colourful and visually captivating collection of Murano tableware. Through collaboration, crafting knowledges are exchanged to produce new, innovative approaches to age-old techniques and materials, highlighting the expertise and history of these two Mediterranean cultures. The pieces bring together traditional, Lebanese forms with the expert technique of Murano glassblowing, developing a dialogue between heritage and contemporaneity, form and function.
How have your backgrounds in architecture influenced how you approach your design practice?
We both studied architecture as a foundation, which helped us construct and shape our way of thinking, projecting our work to a wider range of creative projects. We decided to create our own studio while maintaining a flexibility for our common and separate interests, reflecting who we are. At the beginning, people often asked us whether we were architects, designers, or artists. Our response was that we are sisters who simply do what we love and what moves us. We are curious to intersect our different interests and watch the results. We do not emphasise a “discipline”, but rather a “way of thinking” translated through different mediums, be it architecture, product design, installation, or film. Each medium has its own way of expression and stimulates a different form of interaction. We collaborate with diverse “creative thinkers” – craftsmen, designers, musicians, sculptors, writers, film makers – enriching the experience of each project. We are fascinated by imperfections, traces of time on materials, embracing accidents, and any encountered obstacle as a benefit.
Product design has always been a key part and something that informs our architecture and vice-versa. Both fields are specific to human touch and scale.
Our designs for public interventions and installations are a way of expressing a need for appropriation, interactivity, and a need to feel change and evolution. It is a powerful tool to raise awareness of problems and a learning platform for the masses. It is a “language” that can influence people and engage them with their surroundings [as well as] with others in their day-to-day life, encouraging awareness, happiness, freedom, change, and positivity.
“We do not emphasise a ‘discipline’, but rather a ‘way of thinking’ translated through different mediums, be it architecture, product design, installation, or film.”
Can you describe the contemporary Lebanese design scene and how your work fits within or counters this scene?
Growing up in a city like Beirut – rich in occidental and Arabic historical influences – in a family where our mother comes from a Polish background [and] our father comes from a Lebanese one, helped us question the notion of home and our roots and drove us to be conscious of the hybridity of our culture. These notions are at the core of each project we undertake as they bring back Architecture and Design to their essence: their influence of the human dimension in time and how to work with a contemporary approach while maintaining the traditional ones.
The political and social climate in Lebanon has directly affected our way of thinking through our work and designs. We want to use our designs as a tool for re-questioning.
For instance, our Lebanon pavilion entitled “WAL(L)TZ” focuses on transforming a wall into an activator of connection, sociability, and awareness. Lebanon is highly congested with (physical) walls, from security barriers and barbed wires embedded in the urban infrastructure, to fenced public spaces and privatised coast and green spaces. Lebanon, as in most places, is primarily dominated with (psychological) walls imposed by social-political norms and misinterpretations of religions and cultural values. From nations’ borders to socio-economical-political apartheid and vestiges of war, the wall itself has been used throughout history for various reasons – as a weapon to control, segregating communities, cities, countries. Yet, despite its inherently negative connotation in modern times, the wall is inescapably the main element for architecture endeavours. The pavilion is a linear configuration separated by an omnipresent wall, bursting with life and energy, through cracks and loopholes to overcome the barriers in communication as well as simulate and stimulate connections and interactions. There are glaring paradoxes between the rigid nature of a wall and the fluidity of WAL(L)TZ, crafted in recycled foam, hinting to the resilience of the Lebanese society in the face of adversity. The visitors – turned performers – suddenly find themselves in a choreographed protest against oppression, in this bittersweet tragicomedy that is life in the 21st century.
“Following The Tide”, Coffee Table (photos by T SAKHI)
In which ways has the design scene, and your own work, been impacted by the political climate in Lebanon?
We have encountered various difficulties while implementing these installations in the city centre, but growing up in a country in constant resilience, we learned how to acknowledge any obstacle and transform them into our advantage. The best reward was seeing how different people interact diversely with the installations, bringing them more to life and giving more meaning to them.
What effect does your focus on “human interaction” have on your work?
Whether on a public or private level, we find [that] it is important for citizens to appropriate their own city, their own space, their own objects. Today, the only real public spaces in Beirut are the streets; the city is unfortunately over-constructed, congested with buildings and construction sites, punctuated by privatised gardens, placettes, and beaches. There are barely any public spaces and any greenery for the citizens to enjoy and to feel free in the city. We only hope that our installations would stimulate people to interact with their streets and among themselves as strangers. We consider public interventions as elements exhibited in the most beautiful public gallery: the city, full of people’s expressions, after all, they are the real designers of the city. We always start by questioning the context, the function, and the users of the design, then pushing it to a universal question and placing the Being at the core of our practice.
Our role is to somehow create awareness of the importance of urban life and urban activities in our day-to-day way of life and to offer solutions using architecture and design as mediums of expression.
“The best reward was seeing how different people interact diversely with the installations, bringing them to life and giving more meaning to them. It’s all about creating designs that trigger citizens with a feeling of joy, freedom, and playfulness.”
How does this approach affect the audience? For example, in the piece “Lost in Transition”?
People are the ones constantly surprising us with new ways of using our designs; it is fascinating for us to observe them appropriate [the interventions] creatively due to their own understandings, identities, and ways of living. The best reward was seeing how different people interact diversely with the installations, bringing them to life and giving more meaning to them. It’s all about creating designs that trigger citizens with a feeling of joy, freedom, and playfulness.
In “Lost in Transition”, we wanted to highlight the notion of ephemerality and the feeling of alienation and uprootedness due to the speed of today’s world. It features multiple metal seats that are interconnected through an encompassing arch. The functional sculpture invites face-to-face interaction, while periphery stools offer solitary moments of rest and relaxation. The urban chair is versatile and the numerous spatial configurations allow for multiple uses, whether eating lunch with colleagues or reading a book alone. The short film animation “Lost in Transition”, in collaboration with director Ely Dagher and musician Joh Dagher, (which has been nominated for an Architectural Film Award in the Milano Design Film Festival 2019 in the Anteo Palazzo del Cinema) vividly imagines diverse forms of interactions taking place in the installation. We wanted to suggest a project where any citizen can use/re-use the same element and create different fleeting events in cities. A design that could adapt to any context, to any situation, and to any culture.
T SAKHI, “Lost in Transition”
With reference to your new tableware collection “Tasting Threads”, can you describe your experience in creating collaborative pieces? Has this influenced your own design process?
[Our] designs for furniture and accessories are opportunities for us to explore new materials and new ways of use. We collaborate with different craftsmen from diverse cultures that master their skills whether Murano in Venice, stone in Cairo, and macramé and bejuco in Cancun. This sets a constant exchange and allows us to understand the material and to push the limits of traditional techniques, exploring and deconstructing the materials by testing their strengths and their weaknesses. This process allows our products to grow and to evolve within the execution phase, resulting with a different form or function than initially intended thus embracing all surprises and accidents.
We also aim to unravel our projects by triggering our human senses, which are countless and beyond the five senses: exploring light, textures, sounds, scents, and feelings. Our future goals will be more focused on creating sustainable structures that use innovative, recuperated, and recyclable materials that we have already started implementing in our work, such as the Lebanon Pavilion for Abwab, in recycled foam, and in our new Murano tableware and lighting collections “Tasting Threads” and “I Hear You Tremble”, with recuperated metal waste.
We develop any project, whether in product design, architecture, art direction, or our films, with a similar way of thinking.
“We … aim to unravel our projects by triggering our human senses, which are countless and beyond the five senses: exploring light, textures, sounds, scents, and feelings.”