Designer Karen Chekerdjian reinvents the exhibition experience by introducing her creations at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe

It’s been a busy year for Karen Chekerdjian. The Beirut-based Lebanese designer is staging two simultaneous exhibitions in Paris, as her exceptional designs continue to extend their reach from Lebanon to the world.

In a most significant recognition of her contributions to the global design scene, the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris has given Chekerdjian carte blanche to exhibit her work as an intervention within the museum’s collection. Running from May 31 to August 27 and entitled Respiration, Chekerdjian’s exhibition take visitors on a journey through four museum floors, allowing them to discover Chekerdjian’s designs, which have been organised around five main themes: History-Time, Arche-Type, Trans-Form, Trans-Pose and Trans-Cendence.

“I was asked to place my work in the middle of the current exhibitions, which include intense and heavy Arabic pieces,” says Chekerdjian. “So I had to find a way to keep the visitor engaged in my exhibition and not the main one.” To this end, Chekerdjian drew a physical line on the floor, taking guests on a journey through her universe.

The exhibition begins with the History-Time theme, featuring a short movie shot by young filmmaker Lana Daher, who shadowed Chekerdjian for weeks in Beirut, candidly filming the designer to present a vision of the city through Chekerdjian’s eyes. “I’ve always thought of myself as the least Arabic of all designers,” Chekerdjian says. “My inspiration is Beirut. And when I design, my work is brutal and graceful, violent but smooth and soft, with lots of emotions, like Beirut.” It seems fitting then, to have the movie serve as an introduction to the designer’s work.

To watch the film, visitors can sit on one of five seats designed by Chekerdjian, including the blissfully versatile Living Space III and the sculptural Elephant chair. “Depending on which seat you choose, you will experience the movie differently,” explains Chekerdjian.

In the room that holds archeological finds from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Chekerdjian placed items from her Arche-Type collection. “Arche-Type is the essence of an object,” she says, “something anybody would recognise as is, something that exists in our collective memory.” These smaller, impeccably conceived objects, including the Paper Cut letter opener and the Flint paperweight, are intended to provide a stark contrast to the ancient pieces on display.

Chekerdjian’s larger works, instantly recognisable icons of designs like Rolling Stone, Iqar and Half Rainbow, are displayed in the home interiors space under the Trans-Form banner, while her offbeat jewellery serves as the gracious gateway to the IMA’s historic collection of antique Arab jewellery. “My jewels are objects, they’re not really jewels,” says Chekerdjian. “They’re recognisable, brutal pieces that you integrate into your body,” hence the name Trans-Pose for this part of the show.

The final chapter, Trans-Cendence, examines gesture and form, while continuing the designer’s aim to balance brutality and elegance. “When I find this balance,” Chekerdjian explains, “I arrive at a spiritual state — transcendence.” The Foundation pieces, recalling the shapes of temples, and the Hiroshima lamps are displayed here.

In parallel with the IMA exhibit, Chekerdjian is showing her work at Paris’ Dutko Gallery, from May 11 to June 11. Some of the designer’s most iconic pieces, including Terra Continens and Platform Rainbow, which exist somewhere between sculpture and design, grace the vast gallery space, providing a glimpse into her oeuvre.

When asked why she chose the name Respiration for her show at IMA, Chekerdjian explains that to her, respiration is the opposite of inspiration. “I don’t believe in the idea of getting inspired,” she says. “Once you start working, the idea imposes itself on you.”

Through each and every one of her designs, Chekerdjian tells stories — of objects she found and that are now part of her pieces, of craftsmen who have been plying their trade for decades, of Beirut, a city that continues to redefine itself and refuses to become a reflection of what the West wants it to be.

“Respiration brings you back to life,” she says. “When I design, I feel that I come back to life.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 126-127.