Lebanese born and raised Khaled El Mays started his career by studying architecture at one of the Middle East’s top universities, the American University of Beirut. He then went on to study fine arts at Pratt Institute in New York, and while his educational years were spent between the U.S. and the Middle East, his formative childhood years were nourished by the idyllic valleys of Lebanon.
“My childhood was very random—I was raised by an artist, my mother, and at the same time I was coming from an agricultural valley, which added a very rough aspect to the purity of the art happening within the house. Being surrounded by colours and canvases all the time shaped me and affected the way I perceive my environment, as I was always seeing beauty in the most unexpected places,” explains El Mays.
“I didn’t always know I wanted to be an architect, but I was always sure of one thing—I am a visual person, someone that records visual data much faster and easier than anything else that crosses my path. It took some time to realise I wanted to be an architect. When time came to commit to it and study it, [architecture] seemed like the perfect choice [for me].”
After his studies, El Mays took on a number of varying projects that would define his work attitude today. The first was a non-commercial one, which was a solo show in New York. Called Loba, the work was a series of images and videos, which the designer says allowed him to understand the power of selective repetition as well as its advantages.
According to El Mays, working on his show Loba taught him a number of lessons such as “the benefits of repeating yourself for the longest amount of time possible in order to push your thinking, ideas and your brain to the next level—the level where you don’t need to explain your work, it speaks for itself.”
The second project that helped build El May’s professional attitude was a commercial project, of which the designer didn’t want to go into detail. But suffice it to say, the second project taught El Mays what he did not want to do. He explains: “I think the most important thing I learned is about the things I do not want to do in this life, or the things I hope not to be involved in. Also, very importantly, what I learned is that not everything that shines is gold.”
Having started Atelier Khaled El Mays in Lebanon a couple of years ago, the emerging designer now focuses on furniture design, interior architecture as well as graphic design.
“Atelier Khaled El Mays was meant to be a bit more diverse than what it looks like today—I wanted to start somewhere and to start strong, therefore the main focus was on furniture, which is my favourite scale of a design intervention. I am always on the lookout for exciting projects, because the best way for me to stay on top of my creative game is to distract myself with something I either haven’t explored yet or by just continuing something I had put to sleep for some time,” says El Mays.
While Atelier Khaled El Mays started in Lebanon, it’s slowly expanding its presence to other parts of the Middle East, like the UAE. While his products was exhibited at Design Days Dubai this year, his work is also permanently on display at Galleria Mall’s new but popular Cities Boutique.
About partnering with Cities Boutique to bring his work to the UAE, El Mays says: “The platform seemed to be a perfect match to the products I develop; the rich mix they have reflects my idea of a concept store a lot and how it should be. As for the international scene, I always try to get my products seen in as many far cities as possible, because I believe there is no limit for designed products.”
As the designer puts it, the products produced by Atelier Khaled El Mays are a rich mix between functionality and visual experience. “The way things look is as important as the way things can be used or behave,” he says.
Each design is a combination of seemingly different shapes and volumes, but when put together each product just works. An example is his cone-shaped series, where a number of different furniture pieces like consoles and chairs rest upon many cone shaped legs. The jutting edge of the sharp legs is in stark contrast with the natural and earthy materials that make up the piece, as well as the seemingly warm invite from the product all together.
He explains: “Anything can inspire me, sometimes a random phrase I read, a misplaced or disoriented object…my perception is advanced, so I always analyse and try to understand what’s going on—and the beauty of it is when I understand it totally wrong, these are the best situations. Understanding something in an unintentional way opens up a whole world of exploration for me.”
The seemingly chaotic assembly of elements that bring each of El Mays’ pieces together, such as the smooth surfaces contrasted by the sharp and pointed cones, is a reflection of not only the artist himself, but also his country of origin and current residence.
When it comes to the Lebanese design scene, El Mays argues that it’s one of the best in the Middle East. He explains: “I think the Lebanese design scene is one of the most advanced in the Arab world—the controversies of Beirut have shaped a bundle of very strong designers and artists, each exploring all the aspects of a perfectly ordered chaos the city represents. I think struggle enhances creativity.”
While El Mays remembers 2014 as the year of learning and carful expansion creatively and emotionally, his hopes for 2015 include further establishing his atelier’s presence in global markets, as well as arriving at a stronger emotional well-being.
El Mays concludes: “I am working on my new furniture line that will hopefully debut at Beirut Design Week this coming June. And personally, each year I hope for peace of mind, because I think it’s very important for my [work].
“Professionally, I am hoping it will be the year of growth and structure, as there is a decent amount of loose ends that need to be tied.”