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Dec / Jan 2012
Minimal Intervention

Writer: Nadine Khalil

Chakib Richani is known for his architectural work but his custom-made furniture has become sought after in its own right for its complex detail, monolithic volumes and striking proportions.


There are some styles of craftsmanship that are both bold and understated at once. This is what crosses my mind as I enter Chakib Richani’s boutique, showcase for the Lebanese architect’s furniture collection. To the far right corner, there’s a tripod floor lamp standing 2 metres high, like a signpost. It makes quite the statement. Impressive and yet simple with its sleek legs and lampshade without frills. 

You will find two of the same Guardian lamps in the living room of Elie Saab’s apartment in Paris. In fact, you will find Chakib Richani’s pieces in all of Elie Saab’s private and corporate spaces, whether it’s his penthouse in Rabieh, his Faqra mountain retreat, his Beirut home, or his flagship stores in Beirut, London and Paris. Now Richani is working on the design of Saab’s new boutique in Geneva.

When I ask him how he came to work with one of Lebanon’s most internationally recognised fashion designers, Richani shrugs modestly. “I think he saw one of my projects about 16 years ago, I cannot remember which, maybe it was in Dubai.”

Despite the name he has made for himself (Richani was selected as one of the top 100 architects worldwide by Architectural Digest), you may not have seen his work. Especially if you’re not an Elie Saab customer. That’s because his work doesn’t really belong to the public realm. “We are mostly private,” he explains, “and specialised in high-end residential architecture.” Whether it’s a townhouse in London, a villa in Amman or a poolhouse in Dubai, Richani works from the outside in, creating spaces that flow into one another in a seamless fashion. “I try to keep a certain fluidity and transparency when sculpting a space,” he says.

Like sculptures, it’s the façades of his apartments and homes that mould the interior spaces. “The outside should reflect the inside,” Richani continues. “I’m not a decorator. I’m an architect, which means I’m trying to carve a certain volume inside a space, from within and without. When I saw how spaces transcend one another in architectural work, I began to study furniture and how it interacts with the space in order to create harmony with the inside.” 

In this view, it is always the space itself that dictates the mass, dimension and angle of the interior objects, not the other way around. “I have to balance the void that already exists,” he explains. “I’m most inspired when I’m in an empty space. I find void fascinating.”

“If you look around,” he adds, “each object has a story to tell, from the way it stands and gives off light, to which home it was first placed in before becoming part of my collection.” That is how his furniture became a byproduct of his architectural work.

I got a sense of some of these stories looking around the showroom. Several pieces seemed surprisingly violent. Take the intersecting lines of the Attack or Displacement ashtray, marble pieces with removable stainless steel inlays, or the Soldier floor lamps with their metallic helmet domes or even the bulbous Bomb vases, that are too heavy to be lifted, with only tiny inlays that can be removed. But Richani assures me there’s serenity to his work. “I am obsessed with beautiful things that have simple lines. And minimal detail. If you look around, it’s all simple. Simple, but grand.” 

He then picks up the H-container ashtray, which looks like a curved seesaw, running his fingers across the surface. “This is made of gunmetal steel.” And that’s not the only piece in Richani’s collection that is distinctly masculine. A lot of his work looks this way, sober and minimalist in muted or earthy tones, though far from austere in appearance. It’s unpretentious. There’s a lot of stainless steel and grey marble, dark leather patchwork beneath the semi-hidden brass or wooden bases. “I don’t believe in colours,” he tells me. “They attract too much attention.”

Anyway, it seems the only colour here is the ambient lighting that illuminates the space, or the reflections from the 300 x 230 cm mirrored folding screen that dramatically partitions his boutique, fragmenting the light that bounces off it. For this piece, Grey Distortion, Richani says he was inspired by the modernist architect and designer Eileen Grey. “I hate mirrors in interiors. They are banal as decorative elements and so I wanted to use them in a transformative way, as frames that divide space and not just reflect it.”

The boutique appeared full of experiments in proportions such as the Frame sofa, with its upholstery jutting outside the stainless steel frame. “It depends on which side you see it from though,” Richani notes, “sometimes the upholstery looks like it is within the frame.” He also experiments with an object’s potential functions. There’s the Metropolis II vase comprised of three steel units of different sizes that can nest snugly within one another to form a whole, or the delicate balance achieved by the 133-centimetre high Drop of Water vase. 

The geometry underpinning Richani’s work grows even more complex with his tables, like the intricate Caterpillar and Tempo tables where the legs are rhythmically reproduced in a mathematical composition, or the mechanical-looking, laser-cut Chronometry table. His latest work, the Tectonic coffee table is magnificent. The slabs of marble, onyx or steel, are stacked on top of one another, to emulate the movement of the earth and its sliding plates.

Materials aside, there is a strong unifying characteristic behind Richani’s furniture. Whether paper-thin or unwieldy, his work is less about the space it occupies and more about the space it suggests or implies. Which takes us back to his fascination with empty space. “It’s like a blank page for a writer,” he says succinctly, “you can do whatever you want with it.”

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