A Stitch in Time: Bokja Design

With their creativity bursting at the seams, the Beirut-based studio Bokja is cladding fine-design objects in vivid, traditional fabrics and capturing the imagination of enthusiasts around the world.

It was one of the most joyful images to emerge from the 2010 Milan Furniture Fair – a once-dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle dressed up in a surprisingly cheerful and textural patchwork of clashing fabrics.

Each textile swatch had been lovingly upholstered onto the vehicle’s surface – each stitch taking the derelict machine further away from the death knell of the scrapheap and closer to life as a treasured object.

The transformation was initiated by Bokja, a Beirut-based design practice founded by Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, two women with non-design backgrounds, legendary bowerbird impulses and that intangible quality known as an eye for beauty. The duo established their studio in 2000 and epitomise the truism that it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success. 

In the past 18 months, there has been a surge of interest in the studio’s work, which can be traced to the championing of the brand in early 2009 by two of the most influential people in design – trend forecaster Li Edelkoort and Rossana Orlandi, the Milanese gallery owner whose courtyard housed the Bokja VW.

It was Baroudi and Hibri’s shared love of collecting that brought the duo together. Baroudi wanted to exhibit a collection of ancient textiles she had amassed during her visits to countries along the Silk Road. Hibri had a charming flower shop, which also housed a rotating collection of mid-20th-century furniture sourced from flea markets in Lebanon and beyond. 

When they met to discuss a possible collaborative exhibition, an antique central Asian fabric fell over a modernist chair and the seeds of an international design brand were planted. Eleven years on, their creations have caught the eyes of some serious movers and shakers across the globe, including Saudi princesses, Hollywood actresses and Hillary Clinton, according to their US distributor. Catherine Deneuve, they say, dropped by their store just last week.

Baroudi speaks of the brand with such confidence and enthusiasm that it appears they take the jump into the spotlight as their due. “I feel that we have created a certain niche in the design world that has not been there before,” she says. “And I think the world is ready for Bokja now; people are ready to buy a piece that no-one else owns.”

Minimalism is the antithesis of the Bokja aesthetic. The women employ a network of Lebanese craftspeople and artisans to help them create “elaborate assemblages”: energetic juxtapositions of reclaimed or re-created modernist and antique furniture, dressed in a distinctive and provocative array of textiles that are found or created by the embroiderers within their atelier.

“We collaborate with artisans who use their hands and our mission is to help those people and to make these handicrafts last,” says Baroudi. 

The textiles they find drive the design and motivate the designers. Their origins have cultural and period heritages as eclectic as the effect they create – vintage Russian chintzes mingle with ancient Bedouin dresses, and suzani ikats from Uzbekistan sit happily alongside lush contemporary brocades – and the mishmash comes together in an odd harmony. 

Hibri and Baroudi only use fabrics salvaged from some degree of decay, treating and preserving them to withstand everyday use. Each piece is a pastiche and comes with its own passport recording the unique journey that has led, for example, an Eames chair to strike up a dialogue with a floral fabric from the Levant. But while their origins are carefully written out and documented, a Bokja piece is as much about creating designs that stride confidently into the future as it is about paying homage to the narratives of the past.

This story originally appeared in Vogue Living Nov/Dec 2010. Download a PDF of the story.