How did you first meet?
Maya: We met at the American University of Beirut. But now we are partnered up, and we’re business partners. I’ve always wanted to have my own design studio but it was a little too early for me. Partnering up with Hatem was a big push as he’s been in the industry for a long time. And we partnered with two non-designers as well, which was very smart. They’re more business-orientated and project management background.
How did Cinema House begin?
Maya: We started by renovating furniture for ourselves, for the house. Once we moved in, our friends would always ask us to let them know if we wanted to sell anything. That’s how the idea came about.
Hatem: The name ‘Cinema House’ was inspired by an old sign we saw that said ‘Mod House’. We liked the idea of this ‘house’ and we eventually ended up stealing the sign. The kind of furniture we love is mid-century and specifically 1950s furniture. The sign made us think of this era in the fifties when cinema houses were popular in Beirut. Now all the cinemas are in malls. It’s hard to find just a ‘cinema house’.
What attracts you to the style of the fifties?
Maya: The aesthetics.
Hatem: I always feel that fifties furniture is kind of sleek, such as the very thin legs. Especially compared to now, when so much furniture is heavy and bulky. And the mix of materials in the fifties is also something that is attractive to us.
Where do you find the furniture you rescue?
Maya: There’s a mixture of places. There is Basta, which is an old souk close to our apartment. They sell antiques, used furniture, new furniture and also a lot of mid-century pieces. A lot of them have become very specialized in furniture from the fifties to the seventies, and people go there specifically to find armchairs and lamps and old signage. Now it’s becoming more expensive because it’s a lot more trendy. In addition to Basta, there are a lot of smaller shops in the outskirts of Beirut. Near the airport there is a strip of stores that sell really, really old furniture – pieces that are in really bad shape. Parents and grandparents also want to sell us old pieces sometimes. They give us a call and then we go and check out the house. I wish we had time to go through rubbish bins and find pieces off the street, but we simply have no time.
What exactly are you looking for when you’re shopping for furniture?
Maya: Pencil legs! And armchairs and tables, which sell the most.
Hatem: We keep all of the pieces that we buy in our apartment for quite a while before we sell them. The pieces we buy are also pieces that we would love to keep. So they have to fit in with the rest.
What do you do to update the furniture?
Maya: We normally take photos of the pieces and then Photoshop the colors, to see what colors we want. Then we go to the fabric shop and spend about an hour picking the fabrics, before taking it to the upholsterer.
Hatem: All of our interventions are very minimal. We change the fabric, sometimes we add a bit of paint. But we never make any drastic changes.
You live in quite an unusual neighborhood. What’s it like?
Maya: It’s very central. It’s between Hamra and Achrafieh. It’s also one of the more conservative areas in Ras Beirut. There are not a lot of newcomers to the area. Most people who live here are originally from the area. It’s kind of like a village in that sense.
Hatem: It’s like a family. You rarely find single, young people.
What do your neighbors think of Cinema House? Have they seen the furniture?
Maya: No one has seen the house. The owner of the building is a Sheikh, and he also lives here with his family and extended family. So it’s always interesting running into our neighbors.
Hatem: He’s quite an important figure, he often has bodyguards with him. I don’t know why, but whenever we invite our eccentric friends over to our house, it always happens that they bump into him.
There are a couple of other designers in Beirut who have also started rescuing and reupholstering vintage furniture. What’s the appeal?
Maya: In Beirut we don’t have affordable furniture stores like Ikea. And even if you have the money to afford expensive furniture, there are very few places that sell nice furniture, so people just go and do it themselves. There are a lot of other furniture designers who are also selling reupholstered mid-century furniture. In Mar Mikhael there’s quite a few places that are doing the same.
What are some of your favorite furniture pieces?
Maya: An ottoman that our upholsterer had lying around. He offered to sell it to us, but we didn’t know what to do with it. I did some research on ottomans, and it turned out really well.
Hatem: Very simple and typically fifties armchairs. If you go to some old houses in Beirut you might find a lot of them. I think we’re attached to them because they’re some of the first pieces we made, and they lived with us in the house for months before they got sold. When somebody wanted to buy it, I wanted to say no!
How do your tastes differ?
Hatem: I can’t define anything in particular. Sometimes we agree automatically, sometime we argue for hours. But I don’t know, it works.
Maya: Hatem sometimes likes to tone down the colors, which I wouldn’t necessarily go for. I prefer brighter colors, although nothing too pop. And they tend to sell quicker too.
Who buys your furniture?
Maya: Mostly people who have a similar background to us, do a similar thing to us, and more or less have the same income. Very rarely do we get older couples – it’s usually younger people who are looking for furniture for their home or their office. Which I find surprising, because I would never expect this kind of furniture to work in an office.
You also both run a design studio and have other side projects. How much time do you devote to Cinema House?
Hatem: If we have a spare weekend we’ll go and buy a lot of pieces. And then spend a long time picking the fabrics and everything. So we might go months without doing anything at all, and then in one week do ten pieces.
Does your affection for vintage spill into your other interests?
Maya: I think so definitely. We’re both graphic designers and it’s very clear in our work.
Hatem: We’re basically hoarders. If you go into the other rooms – which we’re not going to show you – you’ll see they’re full of shit, full of stuff. The two of us have this habit. We’re not real collectors, we don’t have one collection, but we can’t throw things away.
Maya: This is one of the reasons why we want to move to a smaller apartment, so we don’t have the option to fill it! Look around here – it’s filled with furniture and stuff that isn’t ours.
What kind of stuff do you hoard?
Hatem: A lot of books, magazines, flyers, catalogues, fabric…
Do you buy your fabric from here?
Maya: Hatem used to travel a lot and he’d always buy me fabric when he came back. And I never would do anything with it, just nicely fold it and think about it for a while. We also like to work with fabrics. We made these cushions, which was one of the first steps in turning Cinema House into a company. We’d like to do more with fabric, but we haven’t found the time yet.
Tell us about your day jobs.
Hatem: We just started Studio Safar. Before that Maya used to work at a design agency and I used to freelance and teach design at the American University of Beirut.
Maya: Studio Safar is made up of four partners, including Hatem and I, and we also have one designer with us. We do work that ranges from CD covers, album covers, communication campaigns, publications, websites and visual identities.
What is the studio working on right now?
Maya: We’re working on about eight projects right now. We’re working on a couple of new publications and on a new magazine that’s coming out – it’s a comics magazine that’s entirely in Arabic. It’s going to be more commercial than Samandal and it’s going to be distributed throughout the region. We’re not the initiators of the project, but we’ve been hired as the designers and art directors. We’re working on a couple of websites as well and a campaign for Baalbeck International Festival.
Hatem: We’re designing the Mashrou Leila album cover as well.
Why do you think people approach Studio Safar?
Maya: So far I think it’s because they know us and they like our work. But I don’t think we’ve built a reputation yet for this kind of design studio. We’re still quite young.
Hatem: Anyway we don’t have a signature style. A lot of designers go for a particular type of aesthetic or visual style. Right now we’re more varied.
Besides the furniture, what are some of your favorite objects in the apartment?
Maya: I know what mine is – it’s a black and white photo of my dad taken in Sanayeh Park, which is about two minutes away from here. I’ve never seen a picture of my parents like this.
Hatem: I think it’s my midi keyboard. I would love to be able to play music. I’m also part of a band – Al Marmoot – which is just me and my friend Omar Khouri playing music for a while. We had an interview on Ziad Nawfal’s radio show and he asked us what kind of music we play. We didn’t really know what to say, so we asked him to tell us what it is. There are no vocals, it’s all instrumentals and quite atmospheric.
What’s your perfect day at home?
Hatem: Staying at home all day is a dream for us. It rarely happens. We’re either working, or we have stuff to do outside the house. To spend a day doing nothing, just to cook or to watch stupid films, is a perfect day.
Maya: Spending a day throwing stuff out is also a dream of mine! And Hatem is a really good cook, but we barely cook at home any more. We’re either working late in the office, or there’s somewhere to go or a new opening happening. This city can really eat you up sometimes.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site. Have a look here.
We enjoyed this nice afternoon – thank you guys for letting us peek inside your personal and professional life.
For more information on Maya and Hatem’s work, have a look at Studio Safar’s website here and visit Cinema House Furniture here.
Interview: NJ Stallard
Photography: Tanya Traboulsi