One of the most delightful stores to visit whilst in Beirut is Bokja, a local furniture brand. Set up by two women, Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, Bokja’s appeal lies in its entrancing whimsicality of assorted bokja fabrics arranged in a patchwork of sorts, upholstered on antique and contemporary furniture.
Baroudi’s and Hibri’s colorful personalities are reflective of their brand which has grown over the past 10 years out of Beirut with a unique identity and story. So coveted are their pieces, famed shoe designer Christian Louboutin is said to have at least one piece from Bokja placed in each of his boutique outlets, and celebrity clients have snapped up pieces in New York for their homes.
Like Baroudi’s effervescent laughter and Hibri’s coquettish mannerisms, the furniture is feminine yet excitingly sassy.
Bokja, pronounced “bo’-ja in the designers’ native Lebanese dialect is a Turkish word that refers to an old traditional wrapping oftentimes elaborately embroidered with golden or silver thread that a young bride would wrap her trousseau in upon leaving to her marital home. It has also been used as wall hangings for decorative purposes. Bokja material is found all along the Silk Road yet; the underlying theme is the exquisite workmanship behind the embroidery, which would have taken many hours to stitch by a very patient woman.
“It’s very significant for us, says Baroudi. The symbolism behind the fabrics hasn’t been lost on these two women who in a sense exalt the women behind these fabrics, now long gone. “We are two women who do this and many women appreciate it.
Bokja melds together both old bokja fabrics favoring those found along the Silk Road in Central Asia with contemporary fabrics. The effect is a layered and highly textured piece of furniture art, almost too pretty to sit on. All kinds of chairs are boosted with colors and numerous patterns in an organized chaos.
Baroudi is a former economist, who collected antique fabrics whilst Hibri had a flower shop and would display antique furniture in her shop. Together the two women meshed their interests into a creative project after Baroudi discovered old fabrics in Asia.
Now, the brand is sold in Paris’ Merci, Milan’s Orlando and London’s famed Liberty store, great addresses where luxurious furniture retail is concerned.
“Bokja stands for a lot of things, says Hibri. “The chair tells a story, it’s about a message, it’s about the East meeting the West, it’s about sustainability, recycling, reinventing a tradition, history. We’re not inventing anything, we’re trying to reinvent and show it from a different angle.
“A chair for instance starts off with a piece of embroidery and we see where the rest of the fabrics takes us, it is always a surprise, and most of the time it’s a positive surprise. Very rarely it happens that a piece comes out as a disappointment. There is always somebody who will like the piece; every item always has its suitors, says Baroudi.
There’s much to applaud the women for. No two pieces are ever alike due to the scarcity of the material and the creative collages of various fabrics they put together. There’s an element of storytelling to it, how to mix and layer the fabrics into a collage of time periods.
“We have learned that new fabrics can bring old fabrics to the fore, make it more modern, make it edgy and funky. Not ethnic, but edgy. And I think that’s thanks to the treatment of colors I feel is how we take it to the modern side. The furniture frames are second hand, and many instances we replicate old frames, says Hibri.
“Nothing is out of fashion and nothing is ugly, continues Hibri. “It’s ‘pretty ugly,’ there’s always humor in what we do. People always want the lightness and smile that a Bokja piece can bring to a house, and the little Bokja passport that goes with it because it gives it a little identity. A Bokja passport identifies each piece with a witty name such as Opium, Ursula or Waiting For Godot.
All the upholstery work is done in Lebanon, and the two ladies work with small artisans. “We don’t do mass production; we work with an artisan from the neighborhood who has learned his profession by work and error. A really small scale artisanal operation, sustainable and we don’t’ want to change it, explains Baroudi.
Now, they have further developed the very manner in which they utilize old fabrics, adding layers to it embroidered by women employed from destitute backgrounds.
“We are not shy of our fabrics anymore and not shy of saying this can be a work of art because now we have recognition in some of the most prestigious places in the world. And we recognize that what we do is special, says Baroudi.
Recently, a furniture gallery in Cairo named Sadaf carried pieces by Bokja, selling out of all the pieces so fast it surprised the two women.
Speaking to the four women behind Sadaf, they explained that Bokja is in line with people’s appreciation for unique pieces that can color one’s home. “The Bokja pieces have a lot of character, a modern twist on old, says Sara Badreldine.
Partner Sherine Kamal explains: “We decided to bring Bokja to Egypt because the pieces were new, funky and Middle Eastern and we realized they’re mentioned everywhere in magazines, and how big they were [internationally]. Kamel herself purchased pieces for her own home, noting that their ability to accentuate a home is what’s so attractive. The pieces carried in Sadaf range in price from $2,000 to $6,000.
“Egypt was a market that was not evident to us, says Baroudi. “In Egypt you have textiles and embroideries and Egyptians like this but they have their niche, and we weren’t sure how they would interpret it. But because of the humor and edginess of Bokja so far, it’s done well, says Hibri.
Yet the ladies have not tired of creating art together. “There is room to elaborate and the best is yet to come, says Hibri. “We’re very grateful for the appreciation and curiosity by people especially from the West and surprised how much people know us and admire our work and we are humbled by this. But we know we have to keep doing better. We are also very overwhelmed. We are surprised but it makes sense because of the times. People need to see a fresh product and Bokja is a fresh product. People want to feel good when they buy something.
Beirut:Mukhallassiya Street, Blg 332, Saifi Village,Beirut, LebanonTelephone: +961 1 975 576Egypt: Sadaf, 22 El Krom Street, 3rd Floor, Flat 5, Mohandiseen, Cairo, Egypt.Telephone: +2 010 1977 197