African Accents

Finding inspiration at Nigerian markets, a Lebanese designer creates artworks for the home.

Carla Nader was bored. The Nigerian rainy season was keeping her inside and she needed to get out. So she went to the local market, where she wandered among the woven textiles, bronze trinkets, and cows. What really caught her eye, however, were two large strands of glass beads, one pink and one white. They were entirely too big to use for making necklaces, but Nader, who had been designing baubles and home accents such as napkin rings and curtain ties as a hobby, decided to fuse her two loves and create decorative objects with all the elements of jewelry.

That was three summers ago. Born and raised in Beirut, Nader spent the rest of her monthlong stay in Lagos, a city in southwestern Nigeria, going back and forth to the market, intrigued by the variety of options. When it came time to leave, she bought a small stock of glass, terra-cotta, and amber beads, along with some bronze lucky charms.

The beads themselves are works of art: They include bodom (yellow beads made from crushed glass, thought to possess medicinal powers), faience (a precursor of glass first found in Mesopotamia and Egypt), and millefiori (named "a thousand flowers" by the Italians because of its pattern), as well as amber, Venetian glass, and coral. Nader purchases her materials at small Nigerian markets, but they come from all over western Africa and beyond, many brought for trade by nomads from Ghana and Ivory Coast.

"You are surrounded by beads in Africa," says the slender, elegant 47-year-old designer, who first visited Lagos at 25 and ended up staying 15 years, before returning to Beirut in 1998. "In the paintings and sculptures, people have always been covered in adornment." Small bronze African masks, clochettes (tiny bells), or goddess figures anchor her pieces. "There is so much life in these faces and figures," she says. "It would be dull to use just beads."

Nader may make the objects with African artifacts, but her technique is rooted in her Lebanese heritage. The textures are rich and the patterns are precise, almost geometric, both hallmarks of Middle Eastern design. Nader never sketches out a work before creating it. Back in her atelier, she simply waits until the color and shape of the beads inspire her. The resulting objects usually measure between a foot and a foot and a half long. Some resemble oversize double-strand necklaces, while others are strung from a "money bracelet" (once used by traders to indicate a slave's value), with fingerlike strings of beads practically begging to be splayed over a table.

Nader started small, selling only to friends. Word spread, though, and before long the National Museum of Beirut offered her a show in December 2003 (the permanent collection now features one of her pieces). Today she holds trunk shows in Beirut, Paris, and Geneva, and in April home design store Signorello of Westport—in the Connecticut town—became the first to carry her creations. "They really are modern pieces," says shop owner Pina Signorello Manzone. "I've had clients lay one on a cocktail table, hang one on a four-poster bed, drape one over the arm of a sofa, and put one in a Plexiglas frame as art." Nader agrees: "Some people will just put out a crystal vase; I'm giving them another option."

From $1,800; available at Signorello of Westport, 11 Wilton Rd., Westport, CT, 203-221-3200; Dyan et Selima, 1511B Montana Ave., Santa Monica, CA, 310-458-0188; and Selima Optique, 888 Broadway, New York City, 212-674-8983.