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Middle East Modern Design

The award-winning Beirut firm David/Nicolas is bringing its brand of design to the world stage

I first met David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem at Papercup, a bookstore-cum-coffee shop just down the street from their then-brand-new studio space in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood (which, as the home to many of the city’s hippest new arrivals, has been likened to New York City’s Williamsburg). I’d traveled to Lebanon earlier this year with a long list of designers I hoped to meet because, despite the country’s political and social issues, the city is a surprising hotbed of modern design. Topping my list were Raffoul and Moussallem, the founders of the five-year-old firm David/Nicolas. Of all the region’s talent, few have gone as global or garnered as much attention as the pair of 28-year-olds. “Our products reflect who we are,” Raffoul explains. “And we like beautiful things.”

In the months that followed my initial visit, a slew of debuts have only solidified the men’s status as the design stars to watch. The Lebanese duo launched five products during the Milan Design Week in April: Scudo marble tables for the prestigious Nilufar Gallery; the Dreamstatic rug for Marcel Wander’s company, Moooi; the Lio desk for Haymann Editions; and Rocket Science candleholders for Verreum. A rug for Tai Ping was exhibited in September during Paris Design Week. Most recently, Carpenters Workshop Gallery (whose star-filled roster includes Rick Owens, Maarten Baas, Studio Job and the late Vladimir Kagan) showed a select group of collectors David/Nicolas’ latest creation: a bar cabinet handcrafted from glass, bronze, wood
and marble. 

David/Nicolas’ Scudo Table.

Which may be why Baron referred Raffoul and Moussallem to his client Vista Alegre, the age-old Portuguese porcelain company, following Raffoul’s stint at Fabrica. That referral led to the duo’s first commission and resulted in Orquestra, a 2014 tabletop collection that went on to become one of the most lauded designs in Vista Alegre’s history, winning the Wallpaper Design Award, the Red Dot Design Award and, most recently, the German Design Award. Creating Orquestra required that the designers spend several months in Portugal. It was during this time that they framed their brand’s vision and design ethos: to create timeless pieces that nod to the past while always looking to the future. 

Rendering of ALFRED, a silver-plated brass and enamel trash ‘butler’ made for
House of Today, a non-profit organization focused on the Lebanese design scene.

Raffoul says that what attracted him to the aforementioned Helmut Newton photograph was that the women in it looked “determined.” The same could be said for him and his business partner. When they heard that Nina Yashar, owner of Milan’s Nilufar Gallery, was going to be in Beirut in 2014, they made it their mission to meet her. Among design buffs, penetrating Yashar’s orbit is known to be difficult, but Raffoul and Moussallem not only got a meeting, they got what would be their next commission: Dualita, a collection that debuted at Yashar’s gallery that April, during the Milan Design Week. In the weeks that followed, David/Nicolas was anointed one of the fair’s three breakout stars by T, the New York Times style magazine, a distinction that accelerated their already rapid rise. 

“They know their value, and know what they want,” says Jean-Pierre Tortil, Tai Ping’s global creative director. “They want to collaborate with partners, but they want high-end processes and quality. That is the way they have positioned themselves.”

Being from Lebanon, a country not typically associated with design, adds to the allure. “No one was speaking about [Beirut] at the time,” says Baron. “They were the new kids on the block, and they were a bit exotic.” Loïc Le Gaillard, co-founder of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, happened upon their designs while dining at a collector’s home in the city. He describes them as “initially very different from what you could have expected. The delicacy of the work contrasts greatly with the political chaos in the region.” 

The Rocket Science candlesticks.

That chaos may explain why the pair recently leased a studio space in Milan and, to date, have primarily targeted partners outside the Middle East. Aside from a restaurant they’re designing in downtown Beirut and a villa in Jordan, current projects include the interior of an apartment in Paris, the complete redesign of a client’s Porsche (Raffoul originally wanted to study automotive design) and a new collection for Nilufar Gallery that will be introduced during the 2017 Milan Design Week. When asked about dream projects, Raffoul ticks off a list that includes designing a hotel, trying his hand at scenography, creating a piece for Italian furniture brand Cassina and collaborating with Daft Punk. That last one might seem random, but the designers are huge fans of the electronic music duo because, Raffoul says, “you either take them or you don’t, but they do what they want.” So do Raffoul and Moussallem. They’re in great demand—but, loath to dilute the brand they’ve worked so hard to build, they’re now saying no more often than yes. That doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels. “Every year we re-question ourselves about our designs,” says Raffoul. “We get bored easily. We always want to change, to stimulate, to create a new vision.” 

Top Image: Photographed by Ieva Saudargaitė

Candlesticks photo by BoysPlayNice.

All images courtesy David/Nicolas