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French Version

Lebanese businessman looks to restart culture of furniture design (Daily Star)

Ronald farra believes local industry not reaching its potential
Retailer says high customs duties, electricity rates and lack of investment are preventing sector from taking off

On a tour of his shiny new $5 million showroom overlooking the dense sprawl of the capital's eastern foothills, Ronald Farra is calm and confident about reinvesting in Lebanon.

With massive real estate projects sprouting up across the country, furniture sales have soared during the last decade of reconstruction, says the 56-year-old designer and retailer. But local manufacturing, he laments, is but a shadow of is prewar prominence.

"This whole area was burned during the war," he says, pointing to the dilapidated neighboring buildings beyond his sparkling glass and steel walls. The Mkalles hillside suburb was once a hub for furniture factories, some of which boasted exports to England and Germany. By investing in the 7,500 square meter space, Farra believes he can help restart the culture of furniture-making and designing that was lost decades ago, despite rigid state policies and an operating environment so inhibiting that it can be more expensive to produce furniture here than in Italy.

"If we had reduced customs duties - and if authorities had not been so short-sighted - we would be the Mideast warehouse for furniture," he says.

Farra fled Lebanon for the U.S. after a couple of close calls during the turbulent days of 1985. He now owns an Italian furniture distribution network in the U.S., is president of Farra Design Center and produces his own line, Abitare out of a factory in Venice. According to Farra, Abitare models are distributed to 300 stores across 30 countries, with much of the business run by his brother Fred, at New Jersey-based Michelangelo Designs.

But in 1996, it was the reconstruction boom that drove him to repatriate. "Everybody was coming back and they all needed furniture. Then Sept. 11 came and it was a boom for Lebanon."

Sales have rocketed since, he says, with an estimated 40,000 homes purchased last year in the wake of the post-Sept. 11 Arab exodus from the West.

Growth rates have ranged from 20 to 25 percent annually, and now Farra says he is considering proposals for expansion in Amman, Dubai and Baghdad.

But the local furniture industry, which some have estimated to be worth as much as $350 million, has drifted far from its potential, he contends, as manufacturing is largely stifled by government policy. Because customs duties range up to 40 percent of product value, "Arabs are bypassing Lebanon and going directly to Italy or Spain to buy their furniture," he said.

As a result, he claims the few remaining Lebanese manufacturers - who pay some of the highest electricity taxes in the world - have raised their prices in reaction to the inflated market.

The industry is also hindered by regional trade barriers and an unwillingness on the part of Lebanese banks to fund investments in the sector which has become heavily computerized in recent years. (In the past, Mkalles manufactures had relied on substantial area refugee populations, which have since been displaced.

Still, Farra is optimistic. He says local artisans produce better quality high-end pieces than their Italian counterparts, and is convinced that local university students will follow in the footsteps of others prominent Lebanese-born designers such as the internationally acclaimed Karen Chekerdijian.

She was a juror in Farra's recently bi-annual university design competition - Lebanon's first, he says - which awarded $7,500 to student contestants from Italy, Lebanon and the U.S.

"We found that some university students were producing pieces that nobody saw. I felt that there was something missing, that someone should open a showroom and help these young designers find a market."

Student work will remain on display at Farra's new showroom for a month, and he says he will also showcase pieces produced by other Lebanese artisans, with the hope of stemming the brain drain, and keeping local talent active at home.

He also shrugs off fears over political instability that have influenced the yearning among many who plan to find work abroad.

"Sometimes things slow down for a few days, but in the end people forget and business gets back to normal.

"We look at the market on an overall basis," he says.

Beirut 15-11-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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