David/Nicolas — a tale of Italo-Lebanese success

 Originally published in the print edition of Lampoon Magazine, April 2020


“It’s important to be both in Beirut and in Europe.” The current economic depression in Lebanon means that banks have set a low cap on how much money can be withdrawn, spent and transferred each month, pausing all transactions and putting the luxury industry, which very much relies on imports, in a standstill. At the port, inbound and outbound shipments have also slowed down and customs taxes have increased. For Raffoul and Moussallem two show openings in Beirut were postponed in light of the situation. Still, while local businesses suffer, they are grateful that much of their projects come from abroad allowing them to stay afloat, though limited in accessing their funds.

“When this all happened in Lebanon, we had to be proactive and to find a quick solution. We went to Milan and established a business in Italy, David/Nicolas SRL.” Being in Beirut keeps them close to loved ones, a support system that helped kickstart their career, and inspiration from the surrounding region. More so, Moussallem is married with a child and calls Beirut home.

A lot of their success has been attributed to their identity, and in a competitive industry where cities like New York and London are overwhelmed with talent, the idea of being from a less developed city can often appear to be a romantic competitive advantage. “Fully moving to Italy is our Plan B. If something happens, we know that we have something stable somewhere else. We can then move and start over. We love the aesthetic of Milan; the proportions, the compositions, all the details. We love that in any single space, there are so many details.”

For Milan-based hand-knotted rug brand CC-Tapis, they came up with Plasterworks, a collection of eight rugs in Himalayan wool and pure silk contrasting textures featuring varying lines and contrasting textures. David and Nicolas’ furniture works feature elements of art deco: rich hardwoods, smooth stream-lined surfaces, and geometric ornamentation. These elements, when juxtaposed with Raffoul and Moussallem’s own personal nostalgia, create the retrofuturism that they are so closely associated with. “We’re not into arabesque and all those things. They’re not something that we grew up with.”

Back in Beirut, they collaborate with Iwan Maktabi, yet another celebrated carpet brand with whom they will be showing three rugs at the travelling collectible design show Nomad in St. Moritz, that unlike their collection for CC-Tapis, will be more Iwan Maktabi, or more subtle, in design. For British luxury wallpaper brand de Gournay who just opened their first Middle Eastern showroom in Beirut, they designed the interior of a room as well as hand-embroidered wallpaper featuring pearly hues and alternating shapes. Collaborating closely with Mitsulift, a Mitsubishi Electric joint venture headquartered in Lebanon and specialized in the bespoke production of elevators, they won the Wallpaper Design Award for Best Vertical Travel for D/ N1, a cabin that induces medium-rise nostalgia in its use of sculpted wood and polished laminates.

After a long hiatus from recording, in 2013, the French electronic duo Daft Punk released Random Access Memories. As the album was greeted with dramatic hype, Raffoul and Moussallem were listening to the release on repeat while at a residency in porcelain at Vista Alegre in the village of Ílhavo, Portugal. “Random Access Memories’s timelessness, its ritual elements, and its futurist sounds make it very timeless, which is how we work.” Raffoul and Moussallem share something special with Daft Punk: retrofuturism, a characteristic that will come to define their aesthetic.

The way they describe their three months in Ílhavo clearly pins it as their hallelujah moment, enlightenment that kindled the milestones that would follow. Though the pair had been working together for two years before that and had already established their studio — at least in writing — that may have very well been the moment that christened the marriage of their names into a single studio with the slash, David/Nicolas. “We performed some sort of detox of information. What are we doing, and why are we doing it?”. The result was their collection of thirty decorative ceramic plates Digital Love, hand-painted in gold and platinum.

The two had first crossed paths at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts in Beirut where they were both attending a program in architecture and interior design. They were still David and Nicolas then; separate and independent from one another and in the absence of the signature slash that would later identify them. From one project to another they understood that they matched with one another and together took a flight Milan awards for postgraduate studies in Product Design at Politecnico.

Moussallem interned at Diego Grandi’s Milan DGO Studio for a few months and returned to Beirut to work on a boutique hotel. Raffoul went for an internship at Studio Marco Piva in Milan then continued to design studio Nendo in Tokyo, after which he carried on to Fabrica, a communications research center financed by the Benetton Group and designed by Tadao Ando tucked near the Northern Italian city of Treviso.

Almost as though independence was no longer an option, Nicolas was collaborating with him remotely from Beirut. Upon Raffoul’s return to Beirut, they began working out of his home and then, as the beginning of most millennial successful startups, started cafe shopping, after which their friends offered them a space atop a restaurant. It was too dark and grim, and with two interns helping them out, it was getting tight, and so the hunt for an office began. They eventually secured a space in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood. Like their artisan and bistro neighbors’, theirs had been a garage and they took it on as an interior design project.

Their office features little of their major works. Prototypes, for the most part — scattered around in an almost accidental way in which they’d never curate for a commissioned project: the entrance features a forest green edition of of their Madragues rug inspired with lines inspired by Eastern geometry and subtle optical plays for Hong Kong carpet brand Tai Ping. A desk is topped with a teak-and-French-oak backgammon set with brass hinges and circular embellishments that they designed for local Joy Mardini Gallery and a crown-like Arabescato-marble vase from their Triangoli collection for Editions Milano. Further inside is a wall mirror with geometric tentacles, Motherboard III, from a series for Paris design brand Collection Particulière. In the corner is the prototype of Impressionniste Paravent for Van Treeck Edition: a room divider, textured glass framed with black metal and custom brass hinges. Between pieces of material samples atop a research table (metals, woods and fabrics) are striped cement tiles designed for beloved Lebanese brand Blatt Chaya. Ceramic items from the two collections for Vista Alegre dot the studio. Across the walls are framed photographs of pieces that are too big, too heavy, too expensive, for which a showroom piece is out of the question.

The same year they opened their office, The New York Times designated the two as one of The Three Breakout Stars of the Milan Furniture Fair after their participation at Nilufar Gallery and Wallpaper Magazine’s Wallpaper Handmade, an accolade that only shot them further to increased international recognition. Almost like clockwork, a wave of press coverage followed and David/Nicolas were a staple in all collaborations and fairs of reputable design and went on to win multiple awards, including the Red Dot Design Award for a tableware collection for Vista Alegre.

Two years later, they were approached by Carpenters Workshop Gallery for representation. The multi-branch gallery also represents Nendo for whom Raffoul had been interning only a handful of years prior, a demonstration of the speed in which they had risen from newcomers to the top. Their inaugural show at the gallery’s Paris space was Supernova, a collection of tables, cabinets and rugs, crafted by fifteen different artisans, that later traveled for exhibition at the New York location. The tables, distinguished by their extremely heavy mass, are sculpted in travertine and geometric inlays in stainless steel, remnants from what they refer to as a lost civilization. “The weight is very important. I think matter has energy, and whenever you respect that energy, it will give something back. Having these tables weigh ten kilos doesn’t make sense. Having them weigh a ton means they’re here to stay,” says Moussallem.