In the Making: A Home in Beirut

Stephan Julliard

The Beirut home of interior designer Maria Ousseimi is as lovingly layered with influences and memories as the historic city itself.

Lebanese interior designer Maria Ousseimi is not averse to changing homes. “I consider them transient places, as if I’m a guest in them,” she says. “I never get anxi-ety from moving. On the contrary. For me, it’s a new beginning.” So it’s a testimony to her present apartment in Beirut that she has lived there since 2006. It is located on the second floor of an 1870s house in the Gemmayzeh district, in the Christian eastern part of the city. Said to have been designed by an Italian architect, the house is sheltered from the bustling street by a high wall and trees, and is accessed via a wooden loggia at the top of a steep flight of stone stairs. Inside, there are traditional Lebanese arches, trompe l’oeil marble walls, real marble floors, and a bright turquoise ceiling some 20 feet high.

For many Lebanese style aficionados, it’s the most beautiful home in Beirut. “What I love is its eclectic nature and the mix of things,” says Liza Asseily, who has hired Ousseimi to decorate her three Liza restaurants, in Beirut and Paris. “There’s a simplicity combined with sophistication. It’s an interior that makes me dream. You can feel it belongs to someone who has traveled.”

Ousseimi, 50, has indeed traveled. She was born in Beirut and lived there until the age of ten. With the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, her family emigrated to Europe and she was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. She went on to gain a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University. In the early ’90s she explored the impact of conflict on children in an award-winning documentary, Childhood Lost, and in a book for which she spent a year in war-torn zones of El Salvador, Mozambique, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

After getting married, having two sons, and spending seven years in London, she made the decision to return to Beirut in 2002. “It’s a very inventive place, a very dynamic city,” she says. “Plus, compared to other Arab countries, it’s a bubble of freedom.” She slipped into the profession of interior designer almost by chance, having started out by simply helping friends put their houses together. Her most important projects to date have been the three Liza restaurants, the most spectacular of which is the one in Beirut, filling an entire floor of a former palace. There, Ousseimi covered the walls with custom wallpapers with motifs that include high-rise buildings, banana leaves, and old banknotes. “The money for me was very nostalgic,” says Ousseimi. “It’s from before the war, so I grew up with that currency.”

When she moved back, she initially sought out the apartment where she was brought up, overlooking the Mediterranean to the west of the city. She longed, however, to live in a traditional Lebanese dwelling and was tipped off about her current apartment by a decorator friend, who had heard that it was being refurbished to rent. “I’d often driven by the building and wondered why it was empty,” she says. “Then I saw the space; it was pretty run-down.” The owner allowed her to intervene in the restoration process and agreed to several of her requests, including that vibrant turquoise for the living room ceiling.

Ousseimi says she already owned practically all the furnishings. A notable addition is a disco ball, initially installed for a New Year’s party. “I’m not a fan of important objects,” she insists. “I like things that have character.” Many of the other items are Paris flea market finds, such as the 19th-century herbarium on the dining room wall and the gold papier-mâché mask of Michelangelo’s David. There are various gifts, too. A Venetian mask in the shape of a swan was a present from American decorator Bunny Williams. The series of painted wall panels replicating illustrations of fables from a 15th-century Persian manuscript was created by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave. The vintage Goyard trunk fitted with a Line Vautrin mirror in her bedroom was a birthday gift.

The trunk is one of several objects linked to traveling. One piece that will not be going anywhere, however, is the 19th-century painted-wood bookcase in the room that serves as Ousseimi’s den. “It’s already been in three of my homes, and by the time it got here, it was literally like a puzzle,” she says. “Somehow the guy who installed it managed to put it together. But it’s in a million and one pieces and will never move from here.” Even when she herself decides it’s finally time to move on.

Image Credits: Stephan Julliard