Finding and Losing Sami El Khazen, 1943-1988

Finding and Losing Sami El Khazen, 1943-1988

I’m writing this too early. There’s too much unknown, not enough learnt. But if I don’t write now, more of the story will slip away. This is a snapshot of my ongoing attempt to discover the life and work of a world-renowned, sought after, visionary designer who eclectically married East, West, old, and new, but who died too early and has had no legacy whatsoever.  

About a month ago, I began looking into the Lebanese artist and interior designer Sami el Khazen after an email I received in the midst of some other research mentioned a bar in Beirut that was “decorated by Sami el Khazen, a very talented decorator, who died young of Aids.” It was enough to pique an interest. The emailer gave me the email address of his sister, Fayza el Khazen, “the only surviving member of their family,” but Fayza did not reply to my interest, she would never reply. 

This story I’m telling is little more than a conglomerate of information you can find online if you search Sami’s name into appropriate engines with enough vigour. Since it hasn’t been told before, it seems worth it anyway. 

Sami was (most likely) born in 1943, a dubious figure as I have reverse engineered a line from a 1974 Architectural Digest article stating that he was 31 years old, his date of birth remains murky to me, even now. He attended first Broumana High School and then the American University in Beirut, before studying at l’Ensad, Beaux-Arts de Paris, and MIT. He was clearly gifted from the very beginning. 

At the absurdly young age of 21, he was appointed cultural expert in charge of the interior of the Lebanese pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. If you have, by now, given his name a cursory glance online, you will have found a large metallic light fixture that sold through Bonham’s in 2018 for $32,500. It is quite a strange looking thing, unlike anything I have seen before, the bottom half is nickel plated bronze and the top half acrylic, with numerous interlocking parts. Designed for the fair, it was not originally as spherical-ish as you’ll see in the pictures, instead it was a 12-foot-tall monolith named the ‘Torch of Culture.’ The gargantuan piece caught the eye of the last Shah of Iran, who bought it and modified it for use in his palace dining room. He sold it in 1979, citing reasons of revolution. 

Desperate for information about Sami and people that may have known him then, I looked into the fair and found a 1964 NYT article that mentioned another person who was also in charge of the pavilion’s interior, one Michel Harmouch. A breakthrough! He had an instagram account, he was within reach, a witness to Sami.

He died two months ago. 18 years older than Sami, and yet he died 33 years after him. Still, I could talk with his estate, maybe they had something. I found his granddaughter, co-founder of this very magazine, who introduced me to her mother, Michel’s daughter, Martine, who affirmed that Michel and Sami were good friends, and that all Michel’s records of the pavilion were destroyed during the first civil war. 

“Never underestimate the war,” Afaf Saidi, wife of the late Lebanese collector Ramzi el Saidi, said during a call in early April. It’s impact was all encompassing. She told me that Ramzi went to school with Sami and had two of his houses designed by him. Though she sent me through some pictures of a table he made for them, there were no pictures of her former house, as seems to be the case with almost everything he created. The houses that Sami designed the interiors and exteriors of are no longer, his showroom is no longer, Beirut’s constant and often unwilling change has swept them away. Not a lot has survived.

It was a surprise, then, to find that the building that housed his former Beirut home still stands, but only just. The Rose House is one of Beirut’s most historic buildings, despite only being built in 1882. Nothing lasts long in the city, it seems. It was inhabited by the El Khazen family after Sami convinced his parents to rent it in 1965, and remained housing them until Fayza was forced out in 2014. That year, the painter Tom Young stumbled across the house and held a brief exhibition and cultural space in the building, with Fayza’s permission. After exchanging messages, Tom agreed to put me in touch with people who attended Sami’s parties, and to introduce me to Fayza, but warned me that she was “famously guarded in her communications.” 

The Rose House is decaying, the interiors are now a depressing relic of what once was Sami’s home, studio, and office, which featured in Architectural Digest in 1974. That article details Sami’s invention of Oriental Contemporary, which involved a fusion of East and West, “a symphony of triangles, an interlude of curves” and notes him as “one of the Middle East’s most innovative designers.” By then, he had worked across Europe, America, and the oil Sheikhdoms of the gulf, houses and places I am yet to find, if they still exist. I am especially keen to find houses where he has painted a client’s portrait to be the dominant feature of a particular decor, as much as I am keen to find some people that attended Sami’s many parties at the house. 

In another late-night research flurry, I discovered that during Sami’s time in the Rose House, someone named Vincent Jacquard lived here as his PA. Again, this felt like another huge breakthrough, Vincent Jacquard listed this stint on his LinkedIn account as he promoted his interior design business. He was in his 70s, also had an instagram account and commented on pictures of the house. I found his contact details, and found that he had died two years ago. 

The Lebanese civil war erupted the year after that article, and Sami eventually (along with many other Lebanese, including Fayza and Michel) left for Paris in 1978. Informed by another AD article, I know that by 1982, he was living in a pied-a-terre on the Ile Saint-Louis (that’s the island adjacent to the Notre Dame, in the Seine), with a showroom on Rue François 1er. His commute would have consisted of crossing the bridge onto mainland Paris, walking along the bank, past the Louvre, and arriving at work. 6 years later, he would be dead. 

I got a call at 7.50am, Sunday, at first assuming the vibrations emanating from my phone were just from my alarm, then realising semi-consciously that Afaf Saidi was the perpetrator. Blurry voiced, I answered and grabbed a calendar (the nearest thing to hand) to write notes onto. “I have some things to tell you about Sami el Khazen,” she said, and I dutifully listened. She told me what she had told me before, and then that she had spoken to Fayza about my research. “She does not want anyone to write about Sami, because she still believes she can write it herself,” right… “but she has Parkinson’s disease, and even I can remember things that she cannot.” She told me Sami deserved to be remembered, essentially saying that Fayza would never be able to write what she wanted, and gave me a few disparate companies, roads, and names to look into. With those words, the Sami that Fazya knew became completely unreachable, both if I did ever talk to her and in this present reality. Her disease is slowly stripping what remains of Sami away from her, and away from me. 

Hope remains, though. There are still people alive that knew him, remember him, somewhere. I am in the process of finding and talking to them, even if I can never talk to Michel, Vincent, Fayza, or otherwise.