Born into a family of architects in Bethlehem, Elias and Yousef Anastas studied architecture in Paris and set up an office there before winning a competition to build a music conservatory in their hometown. They returned to Palestine in 2012 and have since expanded into furniture design and research projects that celebrate local artisanal skills.
How does the Palestinian context shape your approach to architecture?
Yousef: There are many challenges when practicing in Palestine. We’ve inherited urban laws from different periods, and we have to work within those parameters. On the artisanal side, we’re struggling against the disappearance of local knowledge. We approach our projects in a generic manner—as if we weren’t Palestinians—and adapt according to context.
That seems like a very objective approach. Do you think of your work as political?
Yousef: We can’t avoid the context, but it may be counterproductive to perceive our work as political. Generic architecture or design is often more fruitful as it leads to objectivity. The political context is neither the source nor the result of our work; when it comes down to it, Palestinian cities face problems similar to those of other cities in the world.
Why did you set up Local Industries, your furniture design arm?
Elias: It’s challenging here to specify furniture for buildings that is within budget and suits the space. So we decided to produce well designed and locally produced furniture at an affordable price. We started this process when we worked on the Edward Said National Music Conservatory in Bethlehem. The conservatory was short of funds, and we initially considered importing furniture or reusing old items. But then we came up with the idea of working with the artisans already involved in constructing the building to produce furniture. Working on a single chair with several artisans—each of whom had a specialty—created an intensive dialogue about the process. It’s like a miniature version of building a city.
Why is it important for you to work with Palestinian artisans?
Yousef: It’s more about resisting the disappearance of knowledge and craftsmanship than it is a romanticization of our work. The loss of those skills has real implications for the construction of cities; stone was originally used for structural properties in Palestine, but over time people have chosen to use it as a cladding material instead. As a society, we’re losing touch with the noble aspect of materials and the inherent artisanal skills required. We’ve been comparing a stone wall to a stone-clad wall in one of our projects…and there’s no clear evidence that the latter is more efficient than the former in terms of sustainability and cost.
Are there challenges in distributing your furniture?
Elias: We struggle with exporting our work, since all Palestinian borders are controlled by Israel. Goods must undergo inspection which imposes further costs on the products. We’re working with international partners and a gallery in London now to accelerate the processes between Palestine and Europe.
The modernist aesthetic of your collection isn’t what one normally associates with craft traditions.
Yousef: We’re not trying to infuse folkloric elements into our designs—the design evolves according to the methodology. We’re working with a factory that used to fabricate steel for the Jordanian army until their production dropped severely due to political circumstances. The goal of our collaboration is to adapt to the skill set of the individual factory in order to produce furniture.