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MICHELINE NAHRA

A Dinner for One

December 6th 2002, 10:07 a.m., the kitchen.

My father is at the stove brewing his morning coffee in his blue ‘rakwa’. My mother is cutting chicken and getting it ready for lunch. My sister is at the table having her breakfast; I’m walking around in the kitchen, at that moment towards my father. We hear a sound from a distance, a very deep sound, an unsettling sound. My father pauses for 10 seconds, as does my mother, we all do. We then continue what we are doing.

Two hours later, we learn that the sound was that of an explosion that killed my uncle and cousin.

I still remember my entire family dressed in black, sitting in the living room at my uncle’s house beside an old armchair, the one where he always sat. It was blue and old; the fabric of the seat was wearing out, the sponge was getting deflated, it was empty except for a framed picture of my late uncle. A visitor, unaware that this particular chair used to be my uncle’s seat, came in, removed the picture frame and attempted to sit in ‘his place’. My uncle’s wife screamed with a mix of anger and grief at him and stopped him from sitting in the armchair, as if him sitting there was going to deprive her of the last memory of her husband. No one ever sat in that chair again, and only years after did they replace all the furniture in the living room. His armchair is still placed somewhere around the house, in a place that doesn’t invite sitting, and his wife is still incapable of letting go of it. The chair after my uncle’s passing is not a seating item but rather an object of memory, a signifier of him, a signifier of absence.

I was born and raised in the south of Lebanon, within the confines of the security belt that was occupied from 1982 until 2000 – which comprises ten years of my childhood. In the context of my upbringing, the notion of home was always very fragile - the house could be lost at any time. One would assume that acknowledging this possibility would render the physical environment of the house less crucial. But it doesn’t. Notions of home indeed transcend the physical, but the possibility of the home’s disappearance creates a deeper attachment to it while it still stands.

In the context of an unstable country that is always on the brink of collapse, the home seems to be the only place where a sense of security could be established, and where control could be regained. It is the place my mother maintains obsessively and keeps in perfect shape in order to present it in the best picture possible. This happens with a heightened absurdity of repeated time-consuming patterns throughout the days, executed for their therapeutic effects.

When the physical environment is destroyed, it creates a certain void. This void invites people to hold on to what is left, retrace the past, and try to recollect memories. Meanwhile new memories are created; the old ones become cherished and there develops an urge to preserve them.

The more matter is destroyed, the more we struggle to collect or preserve our memories.

Although most people don’t experience the same violence and destruction as we have experienced in a country that is at war for so long already, I think I can draw lessons from it that apply to other situations as well. As a designer, I want to use the value of memory in daily objects. Therefore, in my design process I wanted to explore how, through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction, memory is preserved, stored, encoded, or retraced. It is the enforced destruction, the enforced forgetting and the inevitable reconstruction that I grew up with that creates this urgency to understand the role memory plays in the process.

I decided to create a table and a chair, a dinner setting for one person, starting from a large table that could once fit four people, and was surrounded by four identical chairs. The process entailed a layering of three stories, that of the original, the action, and the new reassembled object which carries the traces of both the original and the action - through this formal exercise I reformulated and reinvented the aesthetics and meaning of the original. The first phase of the process consisted of the deconstruction of the objects into their constituent components; after that I started working on the individual components, for instance by way of sanding specific parts, linking some some of them, and discovering new functional options. In the end, I took all components as basic materials to construct the new entity.

Throughout my thesis I explored how in the aftermath of war, we can establish alternative strategies for recovery and creation. The significance of these strategies lies in the principles embedded in them. These principles offer a set of design approaches, tools, rules and parameters that apply to several scales. It resembles a manifesto that could translate into a matrix, allowing a designer to investigate possibilities for the brief at hand.

In sum: the project you see before you is an investigation on the role memory plays in a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. I would like to explore this notion further through my work, as suggested in my thesis: “the new must be created from the damaged old”.

“What the intellect gives us back under the name of the past is not it. In reality, as happens with the souls of the departed in certain popular legends, each hour of our lives, as soon as it is dead, embodies and conceals itself in some material object. It remains captive there, forever captive, unless we meet with that object. Through the object we recognise it, we summon it, and it is released.” (Marcel Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve, 1909, published 1954)

A Dinner for One