It began—so the story goes—when Hashem Montasser and Hany Bassiouny were hunting for the “perfect” gift for a birthday: functional, minimalist, timeless. The search evolved into The Lighthouse, a multidisciplinary restaurant, concept store and event space rooted in thoughtful curation and accessibility. Another story is that The Lighthouse is a tribute to Cairo University English Literature professor, and Montasser’s mother, Dr. Malak Hashem, “a beacon of curiosity and excellence”, who wrote her thesis on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. One further—a nod to the creative “lingering breakfast” and “painting lunch” gatherings of Woolf and members of the Bloomsbury Group. And a final story: named after the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Lighthouse is nothing if not a place of stories.
Hashem Montasser speaks to Katrina Kufer about creating and providing differentiated cross-faculty experiences, and how it strives to be literal and metaphorical fuel for creative energies and bodies. It is a tall order—but one tackled with humility, intuition and a healthy dose of reality. Success, it seems, is less about perfection, and more about authenticity and embracing the tenets that make us human.
The Lighthouse is a “Curated Design Experience” wrapped up in an economically sustainable F&B-meets-retail model. The secret sauce is carefully chosen keywords unfettered by lofty ideals that see its retail, events, podcasts, menu and décor passion-driven, but not indulgent. It’s brand “checklist” includes terminology like “minimal” (but not clinical); “functional” (successfully commercial rather than niche); “timeless” (avoiding trend ephemerality); “experimental” (sidestepping burnout); “beacon” (adding to the discourse instead of continuing one); and, among several others, “communal”, The Lighthouse’s beating heart.
But building a ground-up homegrown concept in a city rife with novel and/or familiar concepts is challenging. Dubai, home to 85% of global brands, offers consumers a veritable smorgasbord. Then there’s its booming F&B industry—the UAE’s second largest after oil and gas—where estimates expect F&B revenue to reach USD 317m by the end of 2021. The Lighthouse distinguished itself by creating an informal, non-traditional micro-community in an otherwise saturated and commoditized landscape. It was also listening to a growing demand for high quality at good value, and an unintimidating space for creatives and the creative-interested—middle grounds not locally well represented. Filling this void in 2017, The Lighthouse drew upon instinct, the human proclivity to congregate, and a universal hunger for storytelling.
Katrina Kufer: Why is it relevant or important for a space to be multidisciplinary?
Hashem Montasser: We wanted to create a hub that is holistic in nature and encompasses a variety of things that we think people will engage with and want to come back to. Food is very much at the heart of that—if you like the place, the food, the staff, the service, you’ll come back. From a commercial perspective, F&B is the main engine, but it was important to us to envelope all your senses and not just your tastebuds.
KK: How does The Lighthouse integrate culture, and in turn, assimilate into Dubai’s cultural scene?
HM: At the time, there was a lack of viable cultural hub-meets-restaurant type places that you see in other countries, and we wanted to fill that void. You had purely cultural—if you’re going to a gallery space, you know exactly what you’re going into and you’re going for that. Then you had places you go to eat or shop. We thought there were enough binding elements to bring those things together. When you combine these things, an active conversation is created through our events, podcasts, conversations… pre-COVID we did a lot of physical activations, whether booking readings or the physical form of the podcasts, hosting artists, etc. We also wanted you to be able to “touch” design, to get closer to artists and artworks and shorten the distance between the artists and consumers. We felt we had an important role to play in that.
The idea was that we start a dialogue and have a particular group of people gravitate towards the space and create a community. It was novel, and I feel quite good that we have achieved some of our goals, but the key point is, it doesn’t need to mean the same thing to everybody. I’m always happy to hear that some people only come to us because they know we have great coffee, or they like to simply sit in the space and feel good about its airy openness, or they’re picking up a gift, or for our podcast. We don’t want to be all things to all people and we don’t need to fulfill the same need for different people; we give everyone a menu of options so they can pick and choose.
KK: What drives that?
HM: Our dream is for someone to come for breakfast, but then browse our concept store, buy something they haven’t seen before that is functional, beautiful, and therefore discover that particular brand. They fall in love with the design element without even knowing it. To keep recreating that experience, it has to be accessible price wise and inviting in terms of its aesthetics. With limited editions and bulkier items such as furniture, that doesn’t happen too often. We’ve learned that products from mature designers are “heavier” and harder to sell in our space, so we’re a bit careful in not becoming a design gallery, because it’s not on brand. Quirkiness, as long as it’s dictated by our values, works well for us.
KK: Where are you finding the objects, artworks, books for sale?
HM: We don’t have a set of 10 brands we’ve been buying since day one—right now we have about 50 rotating brands—almost always independent designers and smaller niche ones—and we typically add about 5-10 new brands each year. Usually, they’re products you haven’t seen in too many places in the UAE, but it’s ok if they are. There’s no real rule, we love when they have a story, because gifting and storytelling go hand-in-hand.
Because we are a “from the ground-up” home-grown brand, we very much believe in promoting other like-minded home-grown creators, whether they are individuals or organizations. This meant that when we looked at the retail space, it was very important to source independent designers, artists and creators, inside and/or outside the region. If you look at our walls, all are essentially covered by artists that we believe in that we either commission or acquire pieces from who have a point of view about the region that we felt fit in well with The Lighthouse and our design language. The curation extends across food, art, retail, even music, so it all comes from a particular point of view.
"We don’t want to be all things to all people and we don’t need to fulfill the same need for different people; we give everyone a menu of options so they can pick and choose."
KK: How would you describe the curation, or the vibe that The Lighthouse gravitates towards?
HM: One person had to drive it at the beginning, which I did, because it had to be consistent. At the time, most of that vision was in my head, so it was very difficult to explain because I couldn’t tell you what I liked, but I liked it! Once you have enough of those products, people are like, “Ahh, I get it!” I chose the initial core brands but at this point it’s a very collaborative process that includes our team. We run things through our brand criteria, the price point, does it fit our target audience. We also want to surprise you. It’s about building a story at different levels, so you see Boy Smells next to Aesop, Aesop next to Bil Arabi or quirky children’s brands—you’ll find the whole gamut—but you can still see why it all makes sense and how they complement each other.
KK: So it’s about the story and a feeling related to the aesthetic or object, rather than design trends or “keeping up”?
HM: One of the key attributes is being timeless, that’s probably the key component of the brand. I always think, “Will this thing still look good 5, 10 years from now?” If it doesn’t, it won’t make the cut. Things that are trendy come and go, and we generally shy away from them. If you listen to our playlist, some are covers of older songs, some are more contemporary, but it needs to remain relevant, you need to be able to put it on in your car and feel good about it today and years from now. Same for the design and the furniture. If we’re chasing trends, it’s a dangerous game and doesn’t end well. And it’s exhausting! Also, let’s be honest, I’m 47, how would I know what 23-year-olds want! What I’m hoping is that the 20-year-old graduates to the point where he thinks, “This 47-year-old still knows what he’s doing!”
KK: How do you keep it fresh?
HM: My personal aesthetic goes along the lines of “less is more”—the minimalist aesthetic puts me at ease. You think of clean lines and a fresh palette at The Lighthouse. We like to experiment with pairing things together, it’s on brand. If you look at our merchandising, often we mix and match. We want to create an element of, “If this was so-and-so’s library at home…” Everyone has a different formula. When I’m stuck, the binding element is always a book! If I have two things that I don’t know how to bridge, I add a book and it usually works. But you have to be careful because it can look very forced, which comes from not being willing to experiment. I’m all about, “Ok this works, now let’s f* it up and try again!” It creates a bit of dynamism and fluidity, which you need. It also means that we’re not always going to get it right. You just have to accept that as a fact of life and move on.
KK: There’s a fine line between experimentation and making a statement—how do you keep it in check?
HM: We want to do the unexpected—it helps tie up the loose ends—but we’re not trying to make a statement. A few months ago we featured Palestinian cookbooks, but that’s more thematic, which sold super well. Our customers love those books. It was about the quality of the publications and the beauty of those dishes, not about politics. There are too many people making statements—it’s short-lived, exhausting and it doesn’t generally translate into positive energy. There are people who can do it, who are amazing trendsetters, but I don’t know if the model works for us. How long can you keep coming up with new ideas and be at the cutting edge? I find that dangerous living.
KK: What is the specific point of view The Lighthouse pursues or embodies?
HM: We are from here, grew up in the region, infused with a particular perspective, but have a Western-oriented experience. Cultural hybridity is at the core of the model and the point of view we have. We feel many people don’t fall neatly into a Western or Eastern model, so we take bits and pieces of both to create a new bespoke perspective. The menu, music, podcasts, themes, and certainly the design and art, all come from hybridity, playfulness around that hybridity, and a core message we feel strongly about: hybridity is a positive force. Embrace it!
KK: How tied is the success of a hybrid concept and model to this specific localization—that is, Dubai being a “melting pot”?
HM: The model is not new and has succeeded in various places. We have learned from others who have done this—maybe they were more concept-store focused than restaurant-oriented—but earlier European models, places like Colette, Corso Como, or others in New York or Hong Kong. If we were in a different city, we may have had a different point of view. This feels very natural to us because being in the Middle East, the part that’s about being from the region resonates strongly and that can mean many things to different people. They don’t need to be Egyptian or Saudi, they could be Indians, Pakistanis or Europeans who grew up here. The challenge is not competition, but how to make it work as a business model. If you don’t think this through, it becomes an issue. The cultural elements are at the core of our model but we also had to think about revenue drivers and what’s sustainable commercially because we are building a business. And there’s no shame in that. You can build the cultural pieces around it. That’s a model that we feel is viable.
KK: How has the model changed since you opened in 2017—any surprises?
HM: Like everything in life, we started at A and wound up at C. It’s important to be flexible and adapt to the market and be ok with it. When we started, we thought the retail component would be the more dominant part, even in terms of physical space. As it turns out, F&B was more dominant, so that’s a classic case of “the customer has spoken”, and we listened. Doesn’t mean that they don’t love our retail products, just that there is more demand for people who want to come eat and drink, so we adjusted the model and physical space accordingly.
KK: What about on the cultural front?
HM: We started our current podcast [available across the platforms listed at the end of this article] as a physical conversation featuring entrepreneurs who spoke about their journeys a year before COVID, thinking, “Why don’t we also create a digital component?” A lot of people couldn’t make a specific hour or day and it was also sometimes difficult to stage it in a restaurant that is live and moving, so we added a podcast component. It did very well, then lo and behold, COVID came and accelerated that process. So, culturally, our model features physical art and design pieces, and conversations around those both in person and digitally via our podcast series and social media engagement.
KK: The Lighthouse seems focused on creating discourse, but without the agenda that often accompanies curation, rather, emphasizing community and accessibility and intersecting various strands of life. How does that work in relation to the art at The Lighthouse?
HM: We wanted to shorten the distance between art lovers and artists, which we always felt was a little charged in the sense that there was some intimidation. Art doesn’t need to sit at Gagosian—you can enjoy it, engage with it, or have a conversation around it in different settings. The back wall of the d3 space, for example, was a rotating wall in the beginning where we featured different artists—Manal Al Dowayan (from my personal collection), Nada Debs, Vitra accessories—and recently, we decided to commission Hazem Harb to create a site-specific piece.
That’s also why we’ve started commissioning and investing in acquiring art for specific locations and permanent pieces. Maha Maamoun is a great example because she created a self-publishing platform a few years back called Kayfa Ta to debunk the myth around what typically finds its way to published form. When we told her we wanted to feature her work at our Mall of the Emirates outpost, she loved the idea because it was along the lines of what she was thinking in terms of how she sees her practice. This wasn’t the case from day one though, it took us time to get around commissioning and acquiring art. And doing commissions before would have been too early! The Lighthouse needed to settle first. It’s like a child—they outgrow their shoes very quickly in the beginning and then they start settling. That’s how it felt. But that’s part of the beauty. It should be an evolution and we’ve certainly experienced that on the art and culture front.
KK: The Lighthouse is really about integration, creating fluidity between disparate elements, reaching out to the “Everyperson”. How does The Lighthouse maintain this in relation to being a commercial entity—where is the line between integrity or authenticity and “selling out”?
HM: Each location is very site-specific, we really work to engage with the environment and create each outlet’s own mini character. The menu changes, the artwork, the retail products. It’s almost like siblings—somewhat similar but also different. For Mall of the Emirates, we had a lot of people telling us that we’re crazy to go to a mall, it’s so “unlike us”, our d3 outlet is almost “anti-mall”. It was funny and terrifying at the same time! We took our brand and everything it stands for and then made sure this translated into this new setting at Mall of the Emirates. Not any mall, this particular mall, in this particular location. For me, it was about the dialogue with the atrium and with the surrounding brands like Apple. I thought the atrium looked so fantastic, so Art Deco, like Central Station in New York or the Grand Palais in Paris—it exudes character.
KK: The Lighthouse exists as organically as possible within its environment, and then seems to almost take on a life of its own once in place.
HM: We’re working hard on a platform that’s both online and offline—it’s important to try to have that dynamic. It’s amazing how much community management happens on social media! It’s a parallel conversation and when I peek into what happens in that world, sometimes it mirrors what happens in the physical world and sometimes it completely doesn’t. That’s fascinating.
We want to keep coexisting across these different channels. Then you settle, gauge the reaction of who and what’s around you. Something important in the growth of brands is if you’re just growing, at some point you become disconnected. I feel like with every period of growth—and we are in one now—you need a period of gestation where you’re interacting with your community and customers to get feedback, settle, and go from there.
About The Editor
Katrina – arts, culture and lifestyle writer and editor (BFA Fine Arts, Parsons the New School for Design; MA Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) – has lived in 16 countries and written for a multitude of prestigious publications in the MENA region. Based in Dubai, Kufer is interested in observing new environments and exploring cross and inter-cultural connections.