August 14, 2010 12:47 am

Behold brilliant Beirut

Encouraging a culture of craft bolsters business and allows for a differentiated tourism experience

The last week has been something of a hot, hazy blur. When I landed in Beirut on Wednesday, the air over the city was so thick and heavy that it felt as if I were being pushed downwards through the soft, mushy pavement. Still, a super-humid evening didn’t stop us (me, Mom, Mats, my magazine colleagues Todd, Bruce and new friend Moritz) from co-hosting a party at Papercup in Mar Mikhael, commandeering a wonderful new Armenian restaurant a few streets away and then enjoying the crowd, fire-show, sounds, sparklers and impossibly large bottles of vodka at Skybar above Beirut’s harbour.

While the quick stop in Lebanon was mostly work, it also marked the official handover of the flat I fell for back in May. If you caught the dispatch from my trip in early June, you’ll recall that I found two flats in the Ashrafieh district but hadn’t managed to secure the one I wanted before I departed.

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Tyler Brûlé

Fortunately, I now have the keys to the better of the two and have set to work scouring the city’s market, galleries, antique dealers and rubbish heaps for choice pieces to populate the terrace, reception rooms and hotel-size kitchen. My friend Kamal bundled me into his car before I left to select the essentials for the kitchen, and assured me that anything I couldn’t find in the country could be easily made. “Whatever you want,” he said. “Furniture for the terrace, deep sofas for lounging, bed-linen, lamps, storage units. We still know how to make things here.”

Aside from Lebanon’s winning sense of hospitality and an anything-goes lifestyle (elements that should be at the cornerstone of its tourism campaign), it’s the rich culture of craft that makes it a potentially interesting case-study for a country at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia.

A lack of investment in basic infrastructure over the past three decades has turned into a bonus for everyone from book publishers to furniture designers. A young woman who has a stationery business is able to print and hone her craft in the suburbs of Beirut on machines that were long ago replaced by digital equipment in more developed economies. The final product is luxurious and wonderfully tactile – and also incredibly rare.

Across town in Hamra, a furniture gallery that deals in pieces from Jean Royère has started adapting the designs of the respected French furniture designer from the 1950s and launched a local production facility. Boomerang-style tables that have been altered for 21st-century living are covered in plastic laminates that would have been consigned to the bin decades ago but are still found in warehouses around the country. Indeed, small-scale Lebanese furniture manufacturers are now winning jobs that might have otherwise gone to factories in China.

If Turkey is focused on going for volume when it comes to manufacturing clothes, furniture and houseware, then “Made in Lebanon” could become a mark of quality for ceramics, tailored garments, printing, food, even footwear. Lina Audi’s Liwan brand, L’Artisan du Liban, Orient 499, the couture of Rabih Kayrouz, the rustic leather goods of Johnny Farah, Rouba Mourtada’s stationery and Karim Bekdaches’ storage systems are all examples of businesses that combine Lebanese design talent with homegrown manufacturing.

The country has plenty to fix, but a focus on encouraging a culture of craft, which not only bolsters the small and medium-sized business sector but also maintains a sustainable base that allows for a differentiated tourism experience, is a good place to start building. It also puts Beirut in a unique position across the whole region (save for Syria perhaps) by offering up products and experiences that are wholly original.

As more restaurants pop up and hotels start to emerge from the ruins of derelict buildings, Lebanon will need to decide what type of tourists it wants to attract and how it will get them there. For the moment, and not through engineering, it’s a premium destination that’s avoided the hen-party and stag-weekend set or package tours in search of cheap buffets.

Two weeks ago, the government announced an expansion plan that will see the airport almost double in size. As there seemed to be some excitement about building an infrastructure to support big A380s, the government and Lebanon Inc would be wise also to ensure that they support their home-grown carrier MEA (Middle East Airlines) – something of a national treasure. One of my most memorable flights was the first time I flew with them in 1991 from Heathrow to Beirut where the service included a Sunday roast trolley – complete with huge carving utensils and chic flight attendants who smoked in the galley. On my MEA flight to Abu Dhabi last Sunday, I was greeted by an elegant woman with a French twist, deep tan and smoky voice who looked like a poster lady for the “golden age of flying” – and she was. All that was missing was the cigarette.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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