STARCH: Pleasing to the eye and pleasurable to the touch

BEIRUT – Starch is an inoffensive substance, white, odorless and tasteless. When it’s dissolved in warm water, its molecules become a thick gluing agent commonly used to harden soft textiles.

Starch, and all its metaphorical readings, is the idea behind “STARCH your Summer,” the design exhibition nowadays up at the Beirut Art Center’s upstairs gallery. It is the purest form of carbohydrate, starch, and purity is the essential theme of this show.

The exhibition is comprised of a set of installations created by Najla el Zein, featuring the work of young independent Lebanese designers. Herself a young designer, Zein’s work has been exhibited and published at the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam, has turned the white walls of the BAC’s upper floor into something resembling a science laboratory, filled with a diverse range of items, assembled with an aesthetic touch.Upon entering the space, the curious visitor’s first glimpse of this enigmatic exhibition is the white cords tangled in electricity cables hanging from the ceiling, like a chaotic spider web. The cords resemble starch molecules, stuck to one another.

As one enters the gallery proper, a broad array of random items is displayed along the walls, spray painted white, ranging from used plastic detergent bottles to ovens, pans, gas bottles and laboratory equipment.

In the center of the gallery, small decorative objects are placed on seven washing machines.

Zein’s limited edition of placemats and napkins deserves special mention, as it is a bizarre, albeit interesting, science fiction-inspired collection made with starched material. One fanciful placemat depicts a city within a city: Strawberry and vanilla cookies stand for the clouds above a black-and-white city with planes flying over pieces of cake.

Another placemat displays miniature people skiing down the cream of a cupcake. Other little persons are getting out of the aerial tramway in the ski station on the cake.

A third surreal placemat depicts small black-and-white people walking down the straw of a milkshake. Another portrays giant legs stepping through a green field of artichokes.

Next to Zein’s pieces is the eclectic collection of Lara Khoury. Influenced by the Austrian painter Gustav Kilmt, it combines bouquets of silver spoons and plaster flowers with jars made of black thread.

Ghita Abi-Hanna, who is about to launch her own line of leather accessories and jewelery has designed a set of hand-made envelopes, notebooks and folders.

On the right side of the space, other Lebanese designers display their collection of clothing designs – clothes-bearing hangers being suspended from white electric cables, similar to the ones at the entrance – each carrying their own signature style, which gives this part of the exhibition a fashion show aspect.

Ronald Abdala launched his eponymous label in the summer of 2007 after joining Maison Kayrouz. This display is comprised of lab coat-style white shirts.

Racha El Abbas mixes her graphic design experience with her fashion design aspirations. Here, she’s selected hand-made garments – ranging from pret-a-porter skirts to tops – printed with illustrations, mainly women’s faces.

Paris-born Nadine Mneimneh, who started her menswear-inspired ready-to-wear collection in 2010, proposes a set of linen tops which suspenders are made of cords.

The 22-year-old Emily Cremona offers an elegant combination of black androgynous garments, from large trousers open at the front to short feminine jackets and scarves. This mixture of comfortable materials, easy to wear in the summer, is poetic and romantic.

Missak Hajiavedikian and Rami Kadi share the same space to exhibit their collections.

Inspired by his Armenian origins, the former has displayed a white dress covered in a fine layer of green lace as well as a gorgeous Courege-style pleated dress. Kadi works with a canvas of pale rose and orange cloth.

The works Zein had to work with have been selected by the STARCH foundation, launched in 2008 by haute-couture designer Rabih Kayrouz and marketing manager Tala Hajjar.

Keyrouz and Hajjar know very well that it takes some time and hard work, to conquer the catwalks of Milan and New York. With this in mind, the STARCH initiative aims to strengthen and empower fresh talents and enable them to make their first steps in the burgeoning fashion industry in Lebanon.

The composition of artistic installations, random items, original furniture and stylish clothes creates a surrealist environment in which elements are unexpectedly juxtaposed.

At the entrance of the room, a heel and a shoe are disposed in a birdcage, suspended to the ceiling. Such imaginative creation reminds of the essence of surrealism: making an unusual use of usual items.

Zein says that there is no need to go deep into finding out the meaning of the exhibition.

“I didn’t philosophize about it,” she told The Daily Star. “I wanted to do something fun and straightforward with a creative touch.”

Indeed, “STARCH your summer” is, first and foremost, for the pleasure of the eyes and the touch. It exhibits a plethora of materials on different levels – from the floor to the ceiling, shapes and textiles, whether rough as laboratory equipment or smooth as Cremona’s cloth.

Head down to BAC and STARCH your summer on a stylish note.

“Starch your summer” continues at the Beirut Art Center’s upper gallery until June 11. All the designers’ creations are on sale. The prices range from $120 to 190$. For directions, call 01-39-70-18.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2011, on page 16.
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