Monday, March 17, 2008

Cafe in Saifi Village offers visitors an outlet to express their creativity

Cafe in Saifi Village offers visitors an outlet to express their creativity
By Nathalie Fox
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Parents settle their young excited children at a table where they will get their hands dirty decorating pieces of ceramic pottery that they have chosen. At another table, a group of teenage girls exchange the latest gossip about their school while painting their pieces as gifts for Mother's Day. A little girl chooses rainbow-colored paints to adorn her fairy figurine. A teenage boy tries to figure out how to paint symmetrical blue and green stripes across a mug, as his grandmother wonders out loud how her vase will turn out.

Ceramic Lounge, which opened on January 21, 2006, is a cafe where anyone can create their own art, even if they are not particularly artistic. First, you select a white piece of ceramic pottery from a wide range of mugs, plates, bowls, boxes, banks and figurines. There is a wide selection of paint colors to choose from, along with an assortment of brushes and sponges. For those who need inspiration there is the Idea Corner where a selection of books, magazines and drawings are available. A team of art assistants explain the painting techniques and help with any questions one might have. The painted item is then left at the cafe for a week where it will be glazed, processed and baked - the final work of art will be microwave and dish washer resistant. Ceramic studios began to open across the United States, Canada and Europe in the early 1990s. The first one appeared in New York City around 1993. Ceramic Lounge is the only such place in Lebanon, established by the owner, Marcelle Tanal, 33, who has lived most of her life abroad. Tanal was inspired to create Ceramic Lounge because of the many contemporary ceramic studios in Montreal. "I wanted to open a cafe where people can get away from the routine of their lives, where they can relax, have fun, and feel at home at the same time. Also, there was no such place in Lebanon and I believe that Lebanese people have so much creativity. Ceramic Lounge is an outlet to express this creativity," says Tanal. After four months of searching for the ideal location, Tanal chose the location for Ceramic Lounge in Saifi Village, next to Downtown Beirut. Tanal says that Saifi is perfect because of its strategic location in the heart of the capital. More importantly, Saifi Village is also known as Le Quartier des Arts, or The Art Village, because of its numerous art and designer galleries, antique stores, artisan shops and specialty boutiques.

Sahar Bsat, the manager, says that Ceramic Lounge is packed during the summer and in December because schools are out. Also, many Lebanese who live outside the country and visit in the summer and at Christmas make it a point to visit Ceramic Lounge at least once during their stay. Bsat, 27, adds, "We weren't expecting 70 percent of our customers to be children!" Christiane Chami, 49, who has been going to Ceramic Lounge for the last two years, used to go daily but now goes once or twice a week. "I like painting and doing useful activities. I feel relaxed and I forget everything around me. Also, it is a way to pamper myself," she says. Ceramic Lounge serves food and beverages such as sandwiches, salads, coffees, juices and desserts. The cafe also hosts many events and competitions for special occasions, with an assortment of prizes for participants. Every month, customers vote in a competition for the best artistic piece. March is Mother's Month, in celebration of Mother's Day on March 21, and all mothers who spend time at Ceramic Lounge are given special treatment. Lamis Ghanem, an LAU student, went to Ceramic Lounge for the first time with her boyfriend last week. "It was intimate and personal, as well as something new and creative," she says. "During the day it was like a nursery though, because of all the children. But in the evening more couples came. "However, it is a bit expensive. Still, I'm planning to go again with my sister to make a gift for my mom since it's Mother's Day soon."

While Ceramic Lounge is the only branch, the cafe sets up open-air hubs in the summer in places such as in Faraya, Faqra and Beit Mery. Tanal is looking to open a hub on a beach this summer, as well as to open more branches of Ceramic Lounge. Bsat says that the cafe prefers to employ university students as art assistants because they are "fresh, artistic, friendly, enthusiastic and especially those who are also involved in volunteer work and other activities. Our employees are very popular among the customers." Jad Jean Yazbeck, 25, a student at the American University of Science and Technology majoring in graphic design, has been working in Ceramic Lounge as a cook and as an art assistant for a year and three months. "I don't feel like I'm working because I'm having so much fun at the same time," he says.

Tanal doesn't let the political situation or the opposition's protest in Downtown Beirut affect business at Ceramic Lounge, which opens every day. Tanal adds that business has been very good, "we have stayed alive." Yara Hanna, 12, spends time with her mother, her friends, or by herself at Ceramic Lounge once a week: "It's a very calm and pleasant atmosphere. I even take a book with me while I wait for the paint to dry." Her mother, Jessy, adds: "It's nice to see my daughter so excited and happy whenever she comes back from the cafe." The materials for Ceramic Lounge are shipped in from the US and stored in warehouses. The ceramic pieces come ready-made, and the brushes, paints and books come from abroad. "We cannot compromise on the quality, especially so the ceramic pieces don't break easily or the paint fades. After all, they are souvenirs," Tanal says. The prices of the ceramic items and paint colors depend on, "the latest style and trend of the model, the latest fashion and design," says Tanal. "My goals for Ceramic Lounge were definitely attained, and we have many more projects in mind," Tanal says, smiling.

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