Custom furniture designer and builder, Nabil Gabriel Fayad recalls designing cars and houses on paper when he was a young child in Lebanon. Born in Egypt, Fayad and his family returned to his city of origin, Beirut, Lebanon when he was seven years old. Influenced as a young boy by two older generation family members, one a designer and the other a successful architect in Europe and the Middle East, Fayad was encouraged to continue drawing and designing. From Beirut, Fayad emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia in 1972.
Interested in shape and form since childhood, Fayad entered a furniture building apprenticeship in Victoria in 1973 and has been designing and manufacturing furniture in Victoria for over forty years. Alexandria, Fayad’s custom furniture business, has been offering Victorians original custom furniture since the late 1980’s. Sitting down with Modern Home Victoria, in the luxe, wing-back banquette seating he built with Jenny Martin Design, at the Willow Stream Spa at the Empress Hotel, Fayad shares a bit of his history, his process and his experience designing and building furniture in an age of mass-production.
You have been designing furniture for over 40 years now. How did you start on this path? Designing is something I would do as a child; it was natural for me. I was always drawing as a kid and I was encouraged by family members that were designers. Cars, houses, pretty much anything that I could imagine, I would draw. Then over forty years ago, in 1973, I was offered a full immersion, government-sponsored, soft furniture building apprenticeship. It was an 8 hours per day, 5 days a week, hands-on experience. There were only 4 students attending so it was very intensive in design and building. When I completed the program, I implemented my own ideas into the structure and building of furniture. I have always loved design and I think being a creative and visual person I can apply my skills to multiple disciplines; furniture building was just a natural fit.
How would you describe the current market for custom furniture design? I am still very busy building custom pieces so there is certainly an interest. However, our consumer culture of mass-produced items and rapid consumption has reduced the desire to have special pieces created. Custom furniture takes time; it is an art piece, and art takes time. Everything is meticulously measured, calculated and fitted precisely. I am building a prototype every time I custom design a specific piece. Blending timeless techniques with modern styles, custom furniture can’t really be compared to something you buy in a mass-produced showroom. I create special pieces of art, furniture that can be passed on through generations.
With mass-produced furniture so accessible, what drives people to want custom furniture? There are people who value fine furniture – it’s a fine piece of art to admire. Thankfully, people still value having something of beauty in their home. Sometimes collecting special pieces might be part of their family culture. Some of my clients spend a lot of money on their custom built home and would like custom-built furniture to fit with their aesthetic. Filling a custom built house with mass-produced furniture doesn’t always look good. There is a certain standard or quality that comes with a custom built home and clients want to continue that trend in their interiors.
Some clients have renovated kitchens and they require a special fitting, like a banquette. Often my clients have an eye for balance, aesthetics and layout and want the right design, shape and dimensions to all come together to suit the room and their design aesthetic. If you put all those requirements together, it will be hard to find a piece in a showroom. You would have to go from store to store to find something specific.
What is your process for creating a new design? It can be quite a spontaneous process. Often when I’m in my backyard, relaxing with a glass of wine, a design idea will pop into my head. I’ll go to my office to grab some drafting paper and a pencil and head back to the garden table. After designing for this many years, impromptu designs just flash through my head and lines will turn into designs. Sometimes the design of a piece comes together immediately and sometimes I have to put it away for a couple of days and it comes to me in that time. It’s like an artist or a musician, I guess; ideas just pop into my head and I have to sit down and work through it.
How are commissioned pieces different? The process of commissioned pieces versus my own designs is very different. I’m not a total creator in these circumstances. I ask a lot of questions in the consult phase and draw the design from the client’s ideas. Sometimes a client doesn’t quite know what they want and I play a bigger role in the design, other clients have strong ideas. I definitely refine the ideas in the end to ensure the design is not only unique but that it is realistic and practical to fit their design needs.
I understand you work with a lot of interior designers in Victoria. Why are designers calling you? I think people have had positive experiences in my shop, Alexandria, so my work spread mostly through word of mouth from happy clients. The quality of my work and years of experience account for a lot of my business. Often I am called in to finalize concepts for designers. People can dream an idea, but they can’t always see the concept through. I have the long term experience with shapes and forms that people can’t always foresee. But with every new project, I learn something new. There is an infinite learning curve in this business. The possibilities are unpredictable – you have to be smart about your decisions. After forty years in Victoria, I can also tap into some of Victoria’s local talent. Whether it’s for steel or woodworkers, I have a lot of established connections here.
What do you like to do when you are not designing? I’m keen about design so I like to keep current and see what other people are doing. I’m interested in the creativity of others and current trends. I also like to have a critical eye; there is a lot of pollution, waste in design. I like to keep things current and fresh while still maintaining an element of sustainability. For fun, I like to play squash and get together with friends for gatherings or like last Sunday, share a game of backgammon in the sun with good friends.