For those of you partial to some classy paper goods, I have an extra special treat for you this morning. It comes in the form of my latest discovery from the Middle East, the charming Lebanese designer, Rouba Mourtada, the talent behind a chic range of letterpress stationery and the deliciously-named Choux à la Crème. Rouba left behind a career in banking in New York, to return to her home in Beirut and follow her passion for paper by launching her own brand. In 2 short years, her dream has become a thriving success and her quirky, bilingual cards and bold graphic stationery are now sold all over the world, including Liberty in London and Bloomingdales, Dubai. I caught up with the lovely lady herself to find out more about the story of her success…
Hi Rouba! So first of all, where did the name ‘Choux à la Crème’ come from?
This is probably the question I get asked the most about my brand, and in hindsight I wish I had a much more exciting answer or process to reveal. The truth is the name came to me almost instantly without much deliberation. I had literally just moved back from New York to Beirut, was jet-lagged and up late at night doodling and sketching as I often do, and the whole idea of Choux à la Crème came together right then. I proceeded to sketch out several cards, lay out the typography, come up with the label and buy the domain name that night. The premise behind the name is actually very much a reflection of the brand. I’d always envisioned the line to be a mix of whimsy and classic, to evoke a sense of intrigue and humour too. Choosing to go with a dessert (Choux à la Crème are cream puffs) provided the sweet whimsicality and the ‘a la crème’ added the requisite touch of classic French sophistication.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself as a designer and what you did before?
I often joke that I used to be a banker in a past life…but the truth is it’s actually not that long ago that I was working at Citibank! I’d always had artistic tendencies, but I opted to study Economics, Math and International Relations as an undergrad and commercial banking was my first job out of college. As much as I loved the world of finance and still do enjoy that side of the industry, my heart was never fully engaged in it as a career. After 3 years into it I decided to quit everything and go back to school to pursue my real passion: design. I applied to Parsons in New York and never looked back. After my graphic design degree I stayed in New York and worked for a few years, a lovely experience that was probably very instrumental in shaping my design aesthetic. I then moved back to Beirut and Choux à la Crème was born!
The interview continues after the break…
What made you decide to set up your stationery business and what are some of the challenges you faced at the start?
Stationery and paper goods have always been a passion of mine, long before I ever even contemplated going to design school. So in some ways it was almost a natural progression for me to want to be a part of that side of the design industry once I got my degree. The ideas and inspiration for my collections were probably always there in my head, and my graphic design degree ultimately provided me with the actual tools to successfully produce them in a commercial setting. Thankfully I’ve been quite lucky in that it’s been a wonderful journey so far, with no real challenges to speak of. The only obstacle I’d perhaps mention is having to push suppliers to source eco-friendly and recycled paper for me, which is integral to my brand, and not so readily available or in demand in this region. I will say however that the one challenge I do foresee in the future is trying to keep stationery and paper goods relevant and appealing in an increasingly digital world.
Do you work alone or in a team? How does that shape your work?
I am very much a perfectionist and it’s very difficult for me to delegate. I have an illustrator who I sometimes commission to help with rendering some of the graphics digitally when I’m swamped, but other than that I very much do work alone. Its not the easiest and by far not the most efficient way to work, especially when you have your own business and have to do everything from design to production to press-proofing to accounting to marketing to packaging and shipping, and the list goes on! But it’s certainly very rewarding and instills a very personal touch into the brand/product.
Choux à la Crème is very much a reflection of me as a result of that – my humor, my aesthetic, my inspirations and my experiences. My friends always say that they ‘see’ me in the brand, and I often have customers who know the brand remark upon that when they finally meet me in person. They inevitably say something along the lines that “you’re very Choux à la Crème”, and it always brings a smile to my face!
How does your location influence your design?
I don’t think my actual location influences my designs as much as my personal experiences and cultural upbringing have and continue to do so. I believe Choux à la Crème would still be the same brand and aesthetic whether I had launched it in Beirut or in New York, the only difference being that the market in this region has allowed me more leeway in expressing the Arabic language line, which has become a big part of the collection as a result, and is actually a lot of fun for me to design because of its novelty and the niche that it fills.
In that particular sense, being in the Middle East has absolutely influenced my delving deeper into that type of arabesque design and arabic typography. It’s also provided me with a much bigger audience than I would have had if I’d been based anywhere else.
One of the fascinating things about the brand is your use of French, English and Arabic lettering, a nod to your bilingual roots presumably. How important is language in your designs?
Language is definitely important. More specifically, I believe the ‘mismatch’ of language and graphics in most of my designs has been quite integral to the success of Choux à la Crème. For example, using a French or English phrase paired with a very arabesque graphic or Arabic reference is what draws people to my work. It’s unexpected and yet a very typical reality and phenomenon of our time. It fills a niche in the market and caters to an audience who are very much multi-lingual and a product of the same cultural melting pot I’ve been privy to, and can therefore relate to the same humor and expressions.
The arabic language is also a very romantic one and our lettering and calligraphy very beautiful, and being able to translate that into a more ‘modern’ setting, pairing it with whimsical illustrations, is what makes it viable. For example, one of my best selling cards in the Arabic collection is perhaps the most basic one in terms of design! It’s a simple illustration of 2 pairs of lips side by side, and what makes it work is it simply says ‘bawstein’, which means 2 kisses in Arabic – a reference to the way we greet each other in Lebanon, kissing each cheek. If you’ve been anywhere in the Middle East then you know we are very particular about our kisses when we greet each other! It’s usually two, if not three or more. So this card in particular would not work in any other language, and would not work as an illustration on its own, since the reference is lost.
What are your plans for the future of your brand?
My current state of mind these days is “so much to do so little time.” I really have to pace myself sometimes as I get carried away with all the thoughts and ideas that I’m inspired to create. It’s now just over 2 years since I launched Choux à la Crème and the business has grown quite organically during that time. Its much more of a cohesive brand now, with a recognizable aesthetic and an ever-expanding product list. I no longer think of it as a pure stationery line – my latest collection includes a few home wares and dining items, all made of paper of course, and I’m hoping to venture into surface design in the near future, such as wallpaper and textile design, both mediums I’m quite fond of.
Thank you Rouba – we are excited to see what you come up with next!
Choux à la Crème is available in the following cities and stores:
Beirut – Papercup, Orient 499, Boutique du Musee Nationale
Dubai – Bloomingdales, O’de Rose and Boutique 1
Amman – Philosophi
Jeddah – Rummana
London – Liberty, Trunk Clothiers.
Geneva – Mazagy Concept Boutique.
Monocle shops worldwide (London, New York, Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Beijing).
Images by Rouba, Ayla Hibri and Karen & Josette, styling by Rouba Mourtada.