By Shalaka Paradkar for Vogue Arabia
Step into the world of Pascale Habis Zammar, a grandiose haven for art and design, nestled in a quiet enclave in Beirut
One of Lebanon’s favorite sons, Elie Saab, once described Beirut as more of a state of mind than a city. Its resilience, vitality, and joy have time and again overcome the war and strife that have had a near-continuous presence in the Lebanese capital’s recent history. This spirit, tempered by the chaos of a 20-year-long civil war, refuses to be a victim of circumstance. Instead, the city delights in its renaissance, rebuilds with a vengeance, loves life with unabashed glee, and produces a plethora of artists, designers, and creative talents.
One such talent is Pascale Habis Zammar. The 46-year-old Beirut native studied communication arts and graphic design, and was quickly propelled by a love of all things artistic. Three years ago, she wrote Beirut Cooks, a culinary journey explored with a few dozen of her Lebanese friends. This fall, she will launch her new creative venture, Diamondogs, a capsule focused on fashion that is timeless, rather than trendy. At the threshold of Habis’s house, the bustle of Gemmayze’s main strip choked with traffic and trendy cafés, is left far behind. The elegant, whitewashed three-story home at the end of a cul-de-sac, fits well in the neighborhood of similar-built houses. It’s a genteel street, which has survived Beirut’s frenetic building boom and defied developers’ bulldozers to preserve its urban fabric of little stores, well-loved restaurants, and Ottoman-era houses set in flourishing gardens.
“There is an expression, or rather an attitude, that I find very appealing: the thoughtful luxurian,” Habis shares, settling in for a chat in the airy living room with its lofty 6m-high ceilings, after dispensing with the customary Lebanese three kisses on the cheeks. “Today, I feel that we have too much of everything: too much stuff, too much waste, and not enough substance. For me, true luxury is related to quality and not quantity, to rarity and individuality; it cannot evolve at the pace of a fast-food chain. It’s selective and exclusive.”
Habis’s admiration for history and authenticity is cemented in her home’s architecture and decor. Constructed in the mid-19th century by the aristocratic Sursock family, the magnificent mansion sits on a 650sqm plot and was intended as a temporary residence for the Sursocks while they waited for the construction of their wedding cake-like manor to be completed on a nearby street (now the Sursock Palace).
Inside the 410sqm house, the four bedrooms are oriented around the central living room, which takes up more than half the floor area and functions as a grand thoroughfare. “It doesn’t leave much room for privacy, but life is certainly entertaining,” laughs Habis. She and her husband, Michael Zamar, have five children between the ages of 15 and 20. “Everyone moves around a lot so there is always someone arriving or leaving.”
As for designing the 220sqm room, Habis took it head on and fearlessly mixed contemporary classics with antiques. Art by the late German-French abstract painter Hans Hartung, the Syrian artist Marwan, and many unknown artists picked up on her travels are juxtaposed with a cubist coffee table by her friend, the Lebanese-Armenian designer Karen Chekerdjian, which was a wedding present. Another friend, Lebanese designer Karim Chaya, designed the mirrored bookshelf and dining room table, which is teamed with chairs by Konstantin Grcic for Classicon.
A willowy brunette with green eyes and wide lips that often break into a smile, Habis is wearing a white dress from her Diamondogs line teamed with Gianvito Rossi heels that add to her 170cm height. There’s a faint scent of Voyage d’Hermès in the air, which blends with the delicious aromas of Lebanese cooking wafting in from the kitchen. “It’s a beef filet that I love to make – very simple but so delicious,” she says. “At my parties, I serve big cauldrons of steaming aromatic food. I’m not into dainty finger foods at all,” she confesses. “When I entertain, it’s usually pasta, veal, or beef filet, curries, roast chicken, and risotto. I love real food and I haven’t quite accepted the healthy food trend,” she laughs.
Her fondness for hearty food and feeding her brood is inherited from her blond, blue-eyed Italian grandmother, while it is her mother who has inspired the Diamondogs aesthetic. “I loved my mother’s style in the 1970s and 1980s: beautiful coats and leather gloves, big sunglasses, touches of fur, tight turtlenecks, widelegged trousers, and elegant scarves. I woke up one day, remembering a black coat with fur cuffs and collar that my mother used to wear when I was about nine years old. I called her and asked if she still had it. She said she did and that I could have it. When I tried it on, it was perfect – 37 years later and it is just as fashionable and elegant as it was then. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was just one brand in luxury that produced a very small collection of timeless pieces?’” The idea expanded to involve other aspects of a woman’s life. A go-to brand where you could have all the items you could want at a glance. “I do admit to a bit of nostalgia for an age where people were less preoccupied by shopping and taking selfies, and took more time to do more interesting things.”
Like her mother’s classic coat, her house’s beauty hasn’t diminished over time; it has just acquired a patina of character and memories. Habis has done little to modify its architecture in the 10 years that she and her family have called it home. All the original details are still intact, from the ornate high ceilings and marble wainscoting, to the old stone fountain in the garden and the traditional Lebanese triple arches that section off a veranda at one end of the living room, where she loves to read. “Right now, I am reading Sapiens, a thought-provoking book about the development of humanity.” On the bookshelf are well-thumbed novels by Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Julian Barnes, Donna Tartt, Jeffrey Eugenides, and William Boyd, along with books on cinema, art, and architecture.
“Every part of the house is lived in,” Habis says, taking in its expanse with a sweeping gesture, explaining that she decorated the space organically over the years, steadfastly refusing to hire any designers. “The only rule I had was to respect the architecture of the house and leave it untouched. I was perhaps inspired by colonial British houses for the winter garden, but the rest of it was really just put together in an unplanned, intensely personal way.”
The winter garden is lushly planted with tropical flora: banana trees, palms, a tree from India, and orchids. It’s Habis’s favorite space – an area she often looks out onto while working from her home office on Diamondogs. Here on the veranda, under ceiling lights handwoven in Vietnam and sitting at a glass table whose base is actually the root of a desert tree, she has been honing her project since February this year.
“You can tell a lot about people by looking at their homes,” she muses. “Interesting people have interesting homes. I get very depressed in houses that look and feel like showrooms, that have no soul or character. I am drawn to interiors that reflect owners’ personalities and lives. It’s lovely to look at the books they read, know their taste in music and art, and the objects they choose to buy. I like homes where styles and periods are casually mixed together.”
In the children’s rooms, the wallsare in a cool seafoam green, with comfortable furniture, long linen curtains, and white bed spreads. “I love a house that hasn’t been redone for decades, and has chipped vases and mended objects from the past,” she says, pointing to the antique Damascene trunk on the veranda, purchased from a previous owner.
Peppered among the modern furniture in the living room – the day bed by Antonio Citterio and a Hans J Wegner chair – there are some cherished favorites: a beautiful porcelain bonbonnière inherited from her grandmother, which was always filled with chocolates when she visited; an old Lladró bust, a treasure unearthed at Beirut’s Basta flea market; and a photograph by photojournalist Roger Moukarzel, a portrait of three heartbreakingly young Lebanese soldiers in a moment of contemplation, taken during the civil war. “As soon as I saw it, I just had to have it. It just moved me very deeply,” Habis recalls. “The limited copies that had been printed were sold out and the photographer had put aside one last print that he didn’t mean to sell. I think that when he saw how much I loved the photo, he was nice enough to change his mind.”
The eclectic art and collectibles come from her love of anything cultural and artistic. “Art, design, food, music, architecture, cinema, literature. Old and new. It’s all interesting to me. As a hobby, one day I would love to learn how to restore old furniture and objects.” Currently on her wish list is the early 20th century Transat chair by Eileen Gray.
When it comes to personal style, Habis favors an androgynous look throughout the cooler months. “I love well-cut pieces that are inspired by menswear. I wear a lot of leather and love the odd eccentric purchase such as a pair of gold boots, or a flashy faux fur coat.” This past summer, she pulled out “ultra-feminine dresses that flowed and anything that made me feel free, light, and fresh.”
“At my age I know what suits me and what doesn’t. I steer clear of anything that disguises the real me or feels like I’m trying too hard. I don’t follow trends.” Her green eyes twinkle as she takes a long sip of the smokescented tea, soon to be available through her capsule. “I like timeless pieces that I don’t get bored of.”