From homes and restaurants, to retail and leisure, any Rabih Geha project is a nuanced study of context, culture and contemporary delivery. His latest, the first local flagship for a globally known Lebanese brand ups the ante once again.

Speaking exclusively to Downtown Design, Rabih talks about the future of retail design and Beirut’s indelible influence on contemporary culture.

Downtown Design (DTD): How do you feel Lebanon inspires its design culture?

Rabih Geha (RG): Lebanese people are aesthetes, they appreciate good design. Beirut is booming with talented architects and designers who are constantly inspired by its beauty and culture, its history and society. I grew up in Beirut, I experienced its glory days as well as its wartime and post-war periods. As much as Lebanon could be perceived as an unstable country, in reality, it has nurtured a creative dynamism that feeds the arts, architecture, fashion and design communities – regionally, and around the world.

The creative experimentation born from the country is a result of the many cultural mixes and influences it has experienced over the centuries and somehow managed to remain inclusive of it all.  That’s what underscores the success of Lebanese creatives worldwide. And Beirutis, in general, are the same; they look for new objects to value and purchase to add to their homeware collection, or house décor, or accessories etc. They are attracted to innovative and specifically local design.

DTD: How does one fit a contemporary design stance into a context that already has a well-established design codes?

RG: Context and authenticity are always key; a lot of the spaces we design have history and a sense legitimacy that we cannot discard - sometimes as a location and other times as a brand. We try to build on it while respecting its origins and bring it to the contemporary world we live in without compromising its past or visual language. I believe that helps us find the right balance between the essence of the space or brand and its future.

DTD: Each of your projects are very unique. How do you develop the narrative for a project?

RG: Every project – be it a sleek urban residence or a nightclub –has an individual identity and this, for me, is based on its particular context and purpose. I tend to draw upon my subject, which in essence is the project and its surroundings; but it is the stories of the people that use and inhabit these places that we want to tell.

I always put myself in the space – the street, the building and then create a visual narrative through my design and architecture, all the while ensuring it is in sync with the client’s vision and needs. What is inherently fascinating is how a multi-layered design, the multi-pronged decisions that come with it, along with every other minute detail eventually translates into reality and becomes its own being. To me, it is more about the process and story rather than the function or end result. 

DTD: Your latest project for an iconic Lebanese brand brilliantly interprets vernacular architecture of Beirut’s historic Rue du Liban into a more abstract design concept. What do you think is presently guiding retail design?

RG: Customer experience is at the top of the retailer’s mind. With e-commerce booming, the activity of physical shopping is not a need but an experience, and business owners are trying to answer to that. In addition to paying more attention to more traditional concerns such as lighting and design, retailers are looking to offer a lifestyle – be it by adding a spa or a café, or curating unique experiences. It is no longer about whether a store is beautiful or not, nowadays business owners are considering technology, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to make the user journey as enjoyable as possible.