Meet the Locals: Tino from Beirut
In the eclectic neighborhood of Mar Mickhael, Tino Karam has designed a nostalgic apartment where every object tells a story.
Photographs by Alex Atack
Creative director Tino Karam grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, in turbulent times. His city, once known as “the Paris of the Middle East,” was caught in a nationwide civil war that became the backdrop for his childhood. “The city was very hectic then,” Tino said. “You never knew if there was going to be school the next day, because the fighting might prevent it. We had to move houses six times because of the fighting. Sometimes the electricity would be shut off and my parents would have to go buy a generator, or the water would be shut off and we’d have to go buy a water tank.”
When the war finally ended in 1990, he said, much of the city had been destroyed, along with squares, clubs, parks, cafes, and other places where young people like him would have hung out. They had to figure out how to make their own fun and re-create spaces where they could spend time together. “We had to get really creative to have a good time,” he said, “so we built a cocoon of family and friends and we created everything from scratch. And, I think, today, that lesson has given us all a sense of entrepreneurship and creativity — we’re a very independent and strong people.”
In 1999, Tino left Beirut to attend a program at the Miami Ad School. After graduating, he produced commercials and lived in London, Paris, Morocco, and Tunisia. He loved all of them, but never stopped missing the family he’d left behind in Lebanon. Ultimately, a career shift out of producing began a new path that led him home. “The producing work was supercool, but I felt I needed to be more hands-on. I wanted to see things coming to life in front of me.” So Tino began working in art direction and set design.
“I start with an empty room and transform it into a place that feels like it’s been there forever — except it hasn’t. It’s like magic. It involves a lot of shopping for props, mood boards, lighting, and paints to turn a blank space into a place like a coffee shop or a teenager’s bedroom.” At this point, the work feels like an extension of who Tino is. “I communicate visually,” he said. “So just placing objects within a camera frame is my way of storytelling. I can create a vibe.”
Tino works on creating those vibes outside of work, too. He moved back to Beirut in 2012, hoping to create a life as a fully independent freelance art director where he felt most at home. When he arrived, he says, “I came back to a totally new city.”
He now scours flea markets around Beirut and on his frequent travels, collecting special pieces he can place in his home or rentals, or use for set design. In July, he organized the ultimate atmospheric event for himself and his now-wife, Laura: a 4 a.m. sunrise wedding held in the ruins of a mountainside church in rural Armenia.
“When we arrived it was dark, and as the light came up, everyone started to see the pillars of the old church and the mountains behind. … No one had heard of a sunrise wedding before,” he said wryly.
Tino says he decorated his home as he would have decorated a set, one that’s meant to be “a collective memory of things from around the world. … Every piece tells a story, nothing is there by mistake.”
There’s the 1950s lampshade that came from Laura’s Armenian grandmother’s house. It’s a nod to the fact that before being redeveloped and gentrified, the Mar Mickhael (or St. Michael) neighborhood was once home to a large population of Armenian immigrants. “I like that nostalgic ‘grandma’s house’ feel,” he said. Then there’s the dining room art: a compilation of eight portraits of the masked Mexican pro-wrestlers called luchadores that Tino bought on a trip to Mexico and reminds him of his favorite Andy Warhol paintings. In a hallway, there’s another unique piece: a light fixture Tino made himself by poking holes in ping-pong balls, sticking them on Christmas lights, and tossing them into a hammock he bought in Ibiza for a netted-stars look.
Tino now rents several apartments, all of which he has furnished in the same warm, eclectic style. People often tell him it feels like a home away from home.
“Mar Mikhael is like Brooklyn, New York, or Kreuzberg in Berlin,” Tino said. “It was the Armenian neighborhood first, and then it used to have a lot of mechanics and industrial shops. Then, more recently, the artists moved in and the neighborhood. Now it’s full of the best restaurants, bars, and concept shops in the city.”
Lebanon is one of the most socially open and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East. And, Tino said, he often hosts guests from neighboring countries like Turkey, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia who come for a break, hoping to enjoy the freedom to dance at the clubs, drink alcohol legally, and generally let their hair down.
“Just walking around this neighborhood and this city, people find how hospitable the Lebanese are. It’s not like in some other cities where people are rushing around and don’t have time for questions. Or where tourists feel disconnected. The Lebanese are always inviting people in and helping them. Here, tourists see that when someone says hello, they become a friend really quickly. It really doesn’t take long.”
Tino’s Beirut Picks:
Maryool restaurant: “The name Maryool means ‘apron’ in Arabic. I like this place because the chef here takes traditional dishes from Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, and Syria and re-creates them. I know Lebanese people who have been reintroduced to old, lost Lebanese recipes here. It’s a really buzzing, creative place.”
Baron restaurant: “The chef here stays true to whatever vegetable or fruit he’s working with. He doesn’t create plates of food; he creates dishes that really focus on one main ingredient. One of my favorites is the sweet potato gnocchi with dates and bacon.”
Anise bar: “This bar makes specialty cocktails from alcohols made with anise, mainly our traditional liquor, arak. Arak is made with triple-filtered grape liquor that’s infused with anise seeds. It’s usually mixed with water — a one-to-two ratio — and then drunk with a traditional Lebanese breakfast of minced lamb meat and pita. It’s the kind of weekend breakfast that could last three hours, that you take your time with.”
Papercup bookstore: “This bookstore has all kinds of specialty concept books on architecture, photography, food, music, and art, and the best cappuccino in town.”
Corniche promenade: “This is a great walk that goes all along the Mediterranean coastline, leading to a lighthouse. You can even see people cliff-diving. In fact, Red Bull TV was here just last week hosting the most recent part of its cliff diving competition.”
About the author: Breena Kerr is a Maui-based freelance writer and journalist whose work appears in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN, and the BBC.
About the photographer: Alex Atack is a photographer and radio documentary producer based in Beirut. He graduated from Falmouth University in 2014. His work has been published by The New York Times, The Guardian, Monocle, and NPR.