Abbas Sbeity
Published in

Abbas Sbeity

It is the start of my second year at ALBA, where I am studying a Masters in Global Design, and we just embarked on it with Design Abroad — a yearly critical and cultural immersion course in a foreign country. Our destination was Yerevan, Armenia!

Design Abroad aims to emerge design students in a new context where they carefully observe and examine a new environment, interactions, and users, allowing space to critically question the role and impact of Design in different cultural contexts while reflecting on our own local Lebanese context.

To make this happen, our department partnered up with a local institution TUMO — Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan. TUMO is an innovative educational institution working at the intersection of technology and design. We worked specifically with TUMO Studios, a branch of TUMO focusing on craftsmanship and design to highlight Armenia’s rich artisanal heritage with contemporary design trends.

We were a group of 22 students, undergraduate product design students, and graduate design students. We teamed up in 4 groups, where each graduate student led a team of 4 to 5 product design students. The teams followed a design process of discovery and experimentation to identify specific cultural patterns in Armenia and reflect on them by designing new products that can be sold on TUMO Studio’s online store. The goal was to create functional, usable, sellable, and culturally-responsive products.

As a Lebanese, I have already been informed and aware of different aspects of the Armenian culture thanks to my Armenian-Lebanese friends and colleagues. However, being in Yerevan was a different experience. It helped me gain new insights about the Armenian culture. When touring Yerevan and other cities such as Tsaghkadzor, Aragats, Amberd, and Gyumri, I couldn’t but notice the similarities between both Lebanese and Armenian cultures. Both countries are still highly affected by one major historical event: the genocide in Armenia and the civil war in Lebanon. Both events contribute to shaping the collective memory of the people and their daily social and political lives. Religion is highly important and present in different aspects of life. If you are planning to visit Armenia soon, expect lots of churches. In addition, Lebanese and Armenian share a lot of common social habits such as staying out late, dinning late, strong family ties, and lots of family gatherings. Both cultures are also known for craftsmanship and the production of local goods such as wine and textiles.

During our visit to Megerian Carpets factory and museum in Yerevan, a story of a carpet captured my attention:

A carpet was cut into two pieces by a mother and given to her two daughters during the period of the Armenian genocide. The mother asked her daughters to use this carpet to be able to meet again in case something happen and they lose each other. The two daughters were separated during that period but luckily reunited again after 50 years thanks to the carpet.

As a traveler and a designer, I am passionate about cities and how people interact with their environments, I am always observing people and places. And this made fall for Yerevan. It is a human-friendly city. Yerevan is green, walkable and pedestrian-friendly thanks to wide sidewalks, safe street crossing, and large trees all over the streets and avenues. If you get thirsty along the way, you can drink clean water from any Pulpulak (public water fountains) available across the city, precisely 2750 of them are everywhere. You can also grab a coffee on the go. There are street coffee vending machines on every corner in Yerevan.

In addition to coffee machines, there were other machines that we thought they were ATMs at the beginning. They are found in every street and supermarket. It turned out these are electronic payment terminals operated by Telcell, a private Armenian company. They are installed in the busiest parts of Yerevan to accept payments for the services of national mobile operators, Internet providers, public utility companies, and even state payments. This was an interesting service design example for me. I also had to experience them when recharging data for the phone.

After touring and exploring, we started working with our groups. I was working with five product design students who each took a different direction of research. Together, we explored themes such as water in the city, social rituals, Armenian coins, and hospitality. To proceed with our work, we diverged to focus on two themes only. We had two products to prototype and present in the end.

The first product was reflecting on the importance of water in the Armenian culture. A water bottle that anyone can use in the city and fill from any of the public water fountains available. This would decrease the purchase and use of plastic water bottles.

The second product was reflecting on the unique Armenian spirit present in social gatherings such as family dinners, where an important character is present: the Tamada. The Tamada is a toastmaker, a feast leader, who livens up the gatherings. Tamada is a card game that aims to promote this Armenian tradition and adapt it to a new generation of locals and expats.

Traveling has been always something I look for as it allows me to explore new places and observe how people engage in their unique environments differently. Yerevan topped my expectations and I would definitely visit again!

Product Design and Sketches Credits:

Product Design Students: Caroline Kettaneh, Bechara Abi Haykal, Sasha Samaha, Tarek Rahme, and Nayla Barakat.

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