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Designer Benedicte de Blavous Moubarak went on a very big shopping trip before Christmas — to junkyards in Beirut.
She had a lot of things to buy. Shattered doors. Broken window frames. Old railings. Wrought iron gates. Wooden arches. And other architectural elements from stately, albeit crumbling, Lebanese homes that were destroyed, she said, “because of the war or because of greed.”
Moubarak, who moved to Cambridge from Lebanon in September, is a familiar presence in Lebanese salvage yards. What she buys will be incorporated into her one-of-a-kind home furnishings line, and sold through 2b design, a company on Mount Auburn Street she cofounded with her husband, Raja.
The couple’s ambitious agenda is to sell home furnishings, while preserving Lebanon’s cultural and architectural heritage, improving lives, and promoting reconciliation and understanding.
Chef Jody Adams has bought lamps from their collection for her restaurant Rialto. “I think [the company has] a very compelling story,” Adams said. “They’re preserving architectural artifacts from Beirut and employing people who are underemployed. If, as a consumer, I can purchase something to keep the circle going, that’s a win situation for everybody.”
In short, 2b design is both a business and a social enterprise. Products are handmade in Lebanon by marginalized, disadvantaged people from diverse religious groups that have sometimes fought against each other during Lebanon’s wars. She’d see a piece of an ornate wrought iron railing and imagine an elegant lamp base. An arch would suggest a decorative wall hanging. Doors made from juniper wood were perfect for coffee tables. “I can see beauty everywhere,” she said. “Even in the worst broken house.”
To Benedicte and her husband and business partner, Raja, life is about restoring unseen beauty into things that are broken.
“Broken items. Broken heritage. Broken people. And broken reconciliation,” said Benedicte, meaning reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups. By selling Middle Eastern products to Western customers, they also want to build bridges between East and West. Now they are working on replicating the model in the United States.
Their new home base is an unassuming showroom and retail shop called Beyt. (It means “home” in Arabic and in Hebrew, too, just with a slight pronunciation difference.) They’re hoping it will be the first store of many they open across the country. They’re also planning to start their first workshop in Boston, hiring homeless women to help manufacture some of their products.
“We’re swimming against the tide at a time when US companies are outsourcing their work,” said Raja Moubarak. “It’s a financial risk because it costs more to produce things in the US. But it carries meaning. . . . We want to be a values-driven business, not just profit-driven, to be truly transformational.”
Susanna Snyder, an assistant professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, said she planned to bring her students to the shop to hear a presentation on the company’s business model. She teaches a course about how social justice, the arts, and faith can intersect, “and this is precisely what in some ways Raja and his wife are doing,” she said. “It’s a real model of how you can integrate faith with a commitment to social justice and [have] a viable economic enterprise.”
Raja and Benedicte are both 51 or, as Benedicte likes to say, “just starting over at 51.” Raja, who grew up in Beirut, is half Lebanese, half French. He has a business degree and spent much of his career working for US multinational corporations around the world, including Coca-Cola. He met Benedicte in Paris in 1991.
Benedicte, who is French, is a lifelong idealist with an artsy bent. She’d spent a decade traveling the world, drawn to slums and shantytowns in places as diverse as Africa, Thailand, Burma, Nepal; she worked in missions and orphanages and with Mother Teresa’s team in Calcutta. Passionate about design and craft, she sought out craftspeople everywhere she went.
Raja’s job kept them moving, and they lived in Cyprus, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. Benedicte began designing furniture, lamps, and other home decor items. In 2003 they decided to make another, dramatic move, to Raja’s homeland, Lebanon. “After 20 years of civil war, we thought the country was reviving from the ashes,” said Benedicte. “We wanted to be part of a new Lebanon.”
Raja started a consulting firm to develop socially conscious international companies in the Middle East. Benedicte started 2b design, sifting through junkyards around Beirut and later Syria for raw materials — architectural salvage from homes from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, some of it inspired by Venetian and Ottoman architecture. Many of the houses had been destroyed during the civil war, others by zealous developers eager to raze the old to make way for the new. “The government doesn’t really take care of its heritage,” Benedicte said. Continued...