As Karen Chekerdjian began planning her solo show, 'Respiration', on now at L'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, she realised that good design possesses a level of significance only discernible over time. ‘I always thought certain objects were very important, but I didn’t know exactly why,’ she tells Wallpaper*. ‘They are the archaeologies of the future. If we decide to design them, we are aware of what we are doing as witnesses of civilisation.’
Which is another, more profound, way of saying that our objects outlive us. This may be an obvious observation of any museum filled with antiquities. Here, however, with Chekerdjian’s seating, tableware, vases, lighting and jewellery presented as a carte blanche installation across three floors of the IMA’s permanent collection, you get the sense that people centuries from now may one day peer at her work in a similar fashion.
While the Beirut-based designer agrees that the show offers a new reading of her creations, she resists the leap that this automatically makes them museum-worthy. She encourages people to settle into her signature 'Grande Vague' bench from 2010, or orient themselves along 'Living Space III', the multi-functional, expansive lounger panelled with woven rattan. The collection of metalwork jewellery is still intended to be worn (even if the nails lined up along a collar might suggest otherwise).
Indeed, visitors would not be incorrect in perceiving a distinct gutsiness to Chekerdjian’s forms, an attribute that often gets passed off as ‘masculine.’ But the film by Lana Daher that runs in the show’s opening gallery conveys how the designer reflects on her process more like a poet than a builder. ‘They are stories, they are not objects,’ she says. ‘Design is a search on form, a search on time, on history, on scenarios. And most of the time, it’s always a story with a craftsman.’
Chekerdjian, whose 'Mobil' hanger system for Edra helped define her career in Milan before her return to Beirut in 2001, says the craftsmen in her home country have dictated the work she produces – and by extension, what appears in the show. ‘I was forced to go to [them] because there’s no [design] industry in Lebanon; I had to find a way to keep on doing what I used to do but in a different way.’
The show, her largest to date, reveals the ‘mutation’ process of her pieces – how she reconceived vertical, polyhedron vases as horizontal tables, transformed everyday tools into objets d’art coated in 24-karat gold and stacked simplified shapes into striking, colour-blocked ‘Totems’. There’s also the Iqar table, which evokes the aerodynamic aspects of a paper airplane despite its solid reflective metal.
Philippe Castro, the chief of staff to museum president Jack Lang, nodded to the exhibition’s title in suggesting how her work ‘breathed’ new life into the museum’s collection. ‘Her pure and sophisticated work transcends time; this is why we felt she had a place at the Institut du Monde Arabe,’ he notes.
Aside from a red line along the floor guiding visitors from one vignette to the next, several moulds and replicas of the designer’s hand serve as an additional unifying element. ‘It’s the first tool; it’s so strong, it’s so powerful,’ she explains. ‘Everything passes through this hand.’