Inside artist Nadine Kanso’s vast office in Dubai Design District (d3) is a treasure trove of Arab art and design. Haunting photographs by Lebanese Ziad Antar illuminate one corner of the space, with works by Egyptian Youssef Nabil and Saudi Manal Al Dowayan nearby, while an astronaut figurine wearing the Palestinian flag by artist Larissa Sansour stands tall and proud. Design objects by Tom Dixon, Fadi Sarieddine, Finasi, The Odd Piece, a carpet by Iwan Maktabi and wallpaper by Maison d’Art dress every corner with a sense of newfound purpose.
Interspersed between this wonderful mix of artworks and design objects are Nadine’s own creations: her photography works detailing the people and places of her native Lebanon and adopted Dubai home, and her 'Bil Arabi' jewellery pieces, a line of precious, Arabic calligraphy-inspired typography found emblazoned on bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces. Over the last decade Nadine, a resident of Dubai for close to 20 years, has been a stalwart figure in the Middle Eastern art and design scene.
Vintage Lamp from The Odd Piece; Chairs by Samer Al Amin; Rug by RUG Company/The Odd Piece; Table by Mexican Design Company; Vintage side chairs with fabric from Marie Mekko; Green Cactus from The Light House; Vintage cabinet bought at a flea market in Prague; Facing page: Nadine Kanso with ‘Love’ table by Fadi Sarieddine
“Dubai has been good to me,” says Nadine. “This is where I started my business and from where I had my first exhibition at the V&A in London and where ‘Bil Arabi’ came to life.” In 2006, she was invited to participate in the Friday Night programme at the V&A in London. On 25 August, nearly 4,000 people gathered together at the museum to be part of the Arabise Me experience, a multi-art form celebration of contemporary music, dance, visual arts and film by young Arab artists.
In a post-9/11 world, Nadine found the theme to be perfect. Her presentation was collage of portraits of people from the Middle East, each holding hand-made cards with positive affirmations about Middle Eastern identity inscribed in gold – a detail telling of her then soon-to-be journey into the creation of her jewellery line. “I took pictures of a few people I knew that are Arabs from different nationalities with words written in my calligraphy stating ‘My love is Arabic’, ‘My identity is Arabic’, and so forth.” The works, some of which had the phrase ‘Bil Arabi’ in them, set the stage for the concept behind her jewellery brand.
A view of Nadine’s living room in her home in Jumeirah. Artworks by Nadine Kanso, Reza Aramesh, Hussein Madi, Chant Avedissian, Francoise Nielly, Mohamad Ibrahim and Mohammad Rawas; Cushions by The Odd Piece; Armchairs by Finasi/Gioponti; Off white and blue couches by Finasi/Colombini; Carpet by Iwan Maktabi
‘Bil Arabi’ also set in motion new avenues and ways of working. A host of collaborations came Nadine’s way with regional and international brands, including Gucci and Louis Vuitton – Nadine was the first Middle Eastern artist to work with the brand, displaying her photography at the brand’s store upon opening at BurJuman. Importantly, ‘Bil Arabi’ exudes a sense of grounding, determination and passionate style – the same vibe found in Nadine’s d3 workspace and Jumeirah home.
As a creative person, it’s crucial for an artist to have the right space in which to work. “No phones, a quiet space and inspiration,” she says are the keys to making her art. “I’m an artist,” underlines Nadine. “Jewellery and furniture design came to me from my graphic design background. I love typography and calligraphy and I happen to have beautiful handwriting so it works for me.” And calligraphy, Nadine’s signature, her identifying stamp, can be found everywhere – at home, at her office in d3 and throughout the Middle East and abroad.
Surrounding us at Nadine’s home in Jumeirah are artworks by the late Egyptian painter Chant Avedissian, revered Lebanese painter Mohammed El Rawas, Iranian artist Reza Aramesh and a recent red sculptural piece by Emirati Shaikha Al Mazrou, which hangs on a wall in her living room. Vintage and contemporary design pieces provide a canvas for Nadine’s collection of art as well as her own creations – her photography work on one wall, jewellery and cutlery.
Nadine in her office in d3. She wears: a Jacket, Smarteez at Harvey Nichols, Dhs3,450; Pants, Alice+Olivia at Harvey Nichols, Dhs1,450; Top, Maison Rabih Kayrouz (her own); Jewellery, Nadine Kanso, Bil Arabi
Born and raised in Lebanon during the tumultuous years of the civil war, Nadine studied graphic design and obtained degrees in Communication Arts and Advertising Design from the Lebanese American University. After living in Prague, Montreal and Damascus, Nadine moved to Dubai when her husband got a job with Johnson & Johnson. “We originally moved thinking we would stay here just two or three years, but then five years passed, then 10 years, then 18, and now Dubai is home – I would not want to be anywhere else,” she says.
While the Middle East and its people are not products of war, Nadine feels growing up amidst the chaos and the destruction during Lebanon’s civil war is something that psychologically never departs. “Maybe it’s because I’m a child of war and growing up with war you would never think of future hopes.” It’s also resilience, “The minute you think there’s no tomorrow or no future you will not be able to move.” And so there’s a tomorrow every day, and the signifiers of the present and the past and Nadine and her ‘Bil Arabi’ creations are one of them.
Read the full story in the Winter issue of Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, out now.