The Wild East: The Inspiring World of Rana Salam

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Rana Salam's studio on London's Golborne road is a hive of colour and a mix of inspiration. On the day we meet there, even with all her team out researching, it's fit to burst with energy and imagination. Working primarily as a graphic designer but also as a designer of prints, controversial author, blogger and founder of e-commerce site mish maoul (her own slang exclamation for when something is amazing), her work remit and enthusiasm seem boundless.

I mentioned Rana in my last post as one of the most exciting talents of the new Middle Eastern design movement. To be correct, she currently lives in London with her family although she will shortly be between the two as she establishes a base back in Beirut in a large working space discovered on her last trip. Her present office in Ladbroke Grove occupies an old shop and with display cabinets and shelves spilling over with both her own work and discovered crafty pieces, it is unsurprisingly often mistaken for one of the other coveted West London lifestyle stores on the road. "I work to support my habit" she explains about this cultural hoarding.

That day, squares of silk printed with her trademark graphic images litter her desks having just arrived back from a textile printer and we discuss the things they may be used for. An own brand line of products is one of many ideas in the pipeline but, presently, other people's brands top the agenda. She is the creative force behind many of the 'cool brands' of the moment, from Paul Smith, Harvey Nichols and London's Liberty to recent challengers Le Comptoir Libanais and itsu. Both restaurants drawing attention to themselves through this bold new attitude toward culture. She talks about how her work is often described as 'Pop-art-ish' but pop art kitsch and ironic representations of mostly mass produced objects seem only similar to hers in their brazen use of color. Rana's work isn't about opposing elitist culture but about celebrating and 'hero-ing' elements of the culture she feels passionate about - seeing the beauty in its character and detail.

"I use color as my strength" is the first comment she makes when we sit down to talk. Given the benefit of her roots she sees colour as an easy, instinctual tool and clever use of it is the mainstay of many of her identities. Given this confidence and her warm, enthusiastic and inquisitive nature it's not hard to see how her collaborations with fashion and furniture brands brings out the best for clients whose need for newness and startling imagery is constant. In a snippet from our conversation, below, I ask her about colour and the influence of the energy of Beirut.

SM: Rana, you now live in London but your work is bursting with colour and vibrancy I feel isn't seen so often - or maybe confidently- in our home-grown UK design. We felt a very similar energy in Beirut. Do you think your work is still very rooted in - or influenced by- Lebanon?

RS: Yes, very much so. Despite being in London for over 25 years, and having had my design training in the UK, Beirut and the Middle East still remain a source of inspiration for me in all aspects. This is done when I design, cook and how I feel. Color is very natural to me, and it's a language I feel speaks stronger than anything. It sets the mood for anything, and therefore it's a valuable tone that I use in my work. Color is very powerful. It is also an attitude. For me, it is very instinctive, and when I see it taught sometimes on design courses, I find the theories very difficult to understand. I was never taught color at college, but remember Morag Myerscough who taught me at St. Martins always pointed out my strong use of color and I've developed it ever since. Do you think it's somehow to do with the weather in the UK that 'color' seems alien? I know it sounds like a cliché, but weather affects mood, no?

SM: Well yes, that's true. Perhaps there's a more careful approach because there's more restriction from the start. Our environment, for example, instinctively translated is more predictable and much more subtle. I love the idea that color alone signifies such difference. In a way it's something that shouldn't be taught, perhaps, but should be intuitive and instinctual. That said, I have a great little book, 'Colors in Context' by the Color Intelligence Institute and it shows palettes per country - and the UK's is very dour and traditional looking like it's been drawn directly from the murky River Thames. The other countries have these dynamic, energetic palettes drawn from both their landscapes and their cultural heritage whilst we've resolutely stuck to our nostalgic kind of reserve. Do you think that will change? The UK is now a complete mix of culture and hopefully we'll embrace it more through design. Your luminous colour palettes have been very well received here, haven't they?

RS: Yes, very much so. This is changing in the UK, especially in fashion. Look at Paul Smith's SS2010 show this week. He's a master at combining culture and color! A total inspiration. Matthew Williamson is another - although very much inspired by India. In food too. Jamie Oliver, very much a Brit, has introduced color to British cuisine, which brought life and excitement into it. Jane Packer? Another brand that brought the art of flower arrangement via color. (She is a Brit, no, or an Australian!??) ...

One culture that does things definitely differently to the UK is the focus of Rana's first book - 'The secret life of Syrian lingerie'. It chronicles her collection of the outrageous underwear secretly popular in Middle Eastern society but unheard of in the West. She acknowledges that it was a potentially risky venture with its mixture of Syrian content, Lebanese authors and American publisher but it has been wildly successful , is now on the eve of its second print run and is currently exhibiting at the Kunsthal Museum, Rotterdam.

This changing view on culture, how we perceive it, its boundaries and possibilities, drawing attention to the known and the (sometimes controversial) unknown through a vibrant clash of color, symbology and iconography is the root of her aesthetic style and passion. Prints sold on Surface View recently featured in the Sunday Times style guide article on Joss Stone's eastern inspired style "Who would have thought you could make Islam cool, to have that in your house with Joss Stone...". And she'll continue championing this cross cultural inspiration with her return to a full time base in Beirut, making sure her London honed style is not lost in translation. "Beirut is about texture, textured is how the city is. All about the mistake - to merge the two will be amazing". No doubt about it.

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