A marriage made in Lebanon

In Beirut, two young antiques dealers joined forces to create Bokja, a collection of exuberant furniture that has a unique story to tell, says Lucia van der Post.

October 12 2009
Lucia van der Post

Furniture that tugs at the heart-strings. Chairs you want to hug. Sofas you can’t wait to take home. That’s what Bokja, a newish Lebanese label, is all about. It may not sound cool or cutting edge but Bokja is the hot name on the lips of anybody who’s anybody in designer circles. It’s got serious collectors pulling out their credit cards. Li Edelkoort, the renowned Paris-based trend forecaster, has fallen in love with a sofa and has had it shipped home; while Christian Louboutin, the cobbler famous for his red-soled, seductive footwear, has so fallen for Bokja’s enchanting take on furniture that he has a piece in every one of his shops.

Bokja was founded in Beirut by two Lebanese women, Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, some 10 years ago, but it is only now that the buzz around their names is beginning to reach a wider world. When Baroudi first met Hibri in 1999, Hibri had already made a bit of a name for herself in Lebanese circles with her great taste in choosing and selling antiques. Baroudi, on the other hand, had become enamoured of ancient textiles, which she’d discovered on a trip to Uzbekistan: “I couldn’t believe the beauty and the spontaneous creativity that was evident in these wonderful old traditions.” She started collecting textiles from all around the Middle East – beautiful Russian chintzes, Chinese silks and brocades, embroideries from Turkey, hand-woven pieces from Lebanon, suzanis (embroidered tribal textiles) from Central Asia. The women each loved what the other one did; and then, one fateful day, they put one of Baroudi’s textiles over one of Hibri’s sofas – and a brand was born.

They decided it looked so wonderful that they would make a little collection. They reupholstered a group of furniture in these vibrant ancient fabrics, making a sort of patchwork, each piece a work of art; a one-off, unrepeatable object. It was a sell-out. A Saudi Arabian princess got to hear about their work and asked them to do a collection for her and so, says Baroudi, “We made a whole story specially for her – we took furniture from the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s and some special fabrics and she loved it all.”

At root their work is all about finding a way to preserve ancient textiles and so, in a sense, keep alive old traditions. “We know now,” says Hibri, “that people don’t make fabrics the way they used to. Those exuberant flowers that you find in textiles from Uzbekistan and in Central Asia, they don’t do today. The patina of time is something that can’t be replicated.” So the pieces are all inspired by their love of fabrics that come with a story and an ancient tradition, which have been woven or embroidered with love and care by women who often passed them on to their daughters. The name Bokja, for instance, is taken from a Turkish word which is used to describe the intricately worked fabric that was used to cover a bride’s dowry. Lovingly embroidered by the bride’s female relatives, it is a deliberate link between the life she is leaving behind and the new one she is embarking on in marriage.

Bokja furniture does precisely that – it links old and new, finding a contemporary use for ancient pieces. Also, as Hibri puts it, “It makes us look at these fabrics in a new, fresh way. When you mix them up with some crisp linen or a rich velvet you look at them again and appreciate them anew. What we try to do is to put things that we love together, and then we find that they also seem to love each other.” They’ll take, say, a 150-year-old Ottoman brocade, a precious piece from a Bedouin dress, a 1970s Oilily dress and match them with a piece of Chinese silk, and somehow the whole is so much more than the individual parts. A chair might have something like 20 different fabrics coming from places as far apart as Samarkand, Aleppo and Istanbul.

Finding suitable pieces of furniture isn’t a problem. Beirut before the troubles in the 1970s was often referred to as the Paris of the Middle East, a prosperous and sophisticated centre where many cultures met. When the war came, many people fled and wonderful furniture was left behind, much of which is only now slowly emerging onto the scene. Today the flea markets and antiques shops, which Hibri and Baroudi regularly scour, are a rich source of fine pieces from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s made by some of the world’s best designers.

The result is a joyful marriage of the clean lines and curves of Scandinavian and Italian 20th-century design with the wild and chaotic patterns and colours of the East. It’s this mix of ancient culture with repurposed modern design, the explosion of colour and pattern and the richly textured sense of history that makes their pieces so special. “You think you’re leading the way,” says Hibri, “but then you find the sofa is leading you.” The artisans who help create these one-off pieces – the painters, woodworkers, upholsterers, embroiderers and other craftsmen – all work in the neighbourhood in little ateliers and workshops, adding their dollop of love and care to make the finished product a real one-off.

Because each piece has a particular story to tell, and both Hibri and Baroudi believe that that narrative is an important part of the appeal, each piece comes with a name (“It could be one of our children’s names, or a friend’s name or something from a novel or a place,” says Hibri) and a “passport” of its own, outlining its own nuanced history, the countries that the textiles come from and the traditions behind the weaving, the tapestry or the embroidery.

For some time, these pieces have only been available to a small cult following. In 2004 the women took a container full of their pieces to ABC Carpet & Home, the idiosyncratic New York interiors shop (which continues to stock Bokja). From there word began to spread, and trend-setters began to snap up their work. Last December Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah took 40 Bokja pieces to Design Miami where, in spite of the growing economic gloom, every single one was sold. Italian design guru Rossana Orlandi was quick to pick up the brand, which she now stocks at her eponymous Milan store. Meanwhile the new Paris retailing sensation Merci (where Marie-France Cohen, who owns it, always has her finger on the button) has commissioned a special exhibition of their work for this month based around chairs that swivel.

In Beirut Bokja now has its own shop, in the Saifi district in the heart of a historic neighbourhood known for its carpentry workshops. The whole area has been recently restored and is now coming alive with the arrival of a new generation of art galleries and designers. The store opens onto a garden, furnished with tables and chairs, where friends can meet and enjoy a cup of coffee in the leafy surroundings.

Those in the UK wanting to find their furniture should head to Valerio Capo and Sam Pratt’s Gallery Fumi in London. They saw Bokja in Miami, fell in love with it (“We see it as fun, elegant, interesting, sustainable and unique... exactly what we like to show in our gallery,” says Capo) and so took some “exquisite chairs and sofas” to their satellite gallery in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, this summer, showing them alongside pieces by Nacho Carbonell, Raw Edges, Max Lamb, Pieke Bergmans, and Paul Cocksedge. The Bokja furniture was, needless to say, a sell-out and they’ll be stocking it at the London gallery regularly from now on.

At first sight, Bokja could seem like just a collection of pretty but not very important pieces but, actually, I think it’s more significant than that. It has wrapped up in this lovely little brand so much that seems to speak to people’s current unspoken needs. This is furniture with an emotional appeal. Each comes with a story. Each has been made with love and care. Each is unique. At the same time, it is about preserving old and beautiful things and making us realise what it is we could so easily have lost or overlooked. It is recycling in a highly sophisticated form.

Chris Sanderson of the trend-forecasting Future Laboratory sees it as part of a longing for people to be reminded of happier, simpler times, to surround themselves with objects that have about them a homeliness, a charm, and a layered sense of history. “It can be done badly and then it is awful, but when it’s done well – as Bokja does it – then there is something utterly delightful about it that seems to capture the mood of the moment.” He likes to use the word “homestead” to sum up this feeling that is in the air. The fact that almost everybody who sees it wants to take a piece home makes one realise that Bokja has clearly touched a nerve.