Tell us about yourself.
My name is Cynthia Merhej and I do many different things in the realm of visual communication. I’m currently based in Beirut.
In your own words, what is beauty?
There’s nothing special about it. It’s everywhere and in everything as long as you are looking.
What did you study in college?
I studied illustration, graphic design, and later Visual Communication, which honestly I’m still not really sure what it is. It’s like a blend of a lot of disciplines.
What were your most memorable and enjoyable courses at Central Saint Martins and Royal College of Art?
I really enjoyed the life drawing classes at CSM, to keep drawing the same thing over and over again is really meditative. At the RCA I also loved the drawing from nature classes. The teacher was awesome and had so many anecdotes to tell about former famous students, and he would bring lots of different plants from his garden and skulls and butterflies for us to draw. I also really enjoyed a group called Critical Forum at the RCA. It was a bit of controversial platform, but I really loved analyzing and discussing everyone’s work and I found that interaction very invigorating.
To that note, what courses do you regret not taking?
I tried to do as much as I possibly could while still trying to make the most of London and enjoy everything the city had to offer. The only thing I regret not taking was a workshop on processing color photography at the RCA, which a friend of mine set up. I never ended up going because other things kept coming up, but in retrospect I should have made the effort to try and find the time.
If you were not an artist, what alternative career path might you have pursued?
I guess it’s cheating to say dancer? The only other logical option is archeologist.
What’s the story behind the title, The Atlas Hotel Guest Book?
I wanted the title to of the hotel to be grand, to reflect on the ambitions of the region at the time to be a player on the international stage. The hotel though is a far cry from its name, because it’s now crumbling and only a shell of what it used to be. It was also a bit of nod to one of my favorite artists, Walid Raad, and his major piece of work known as the Atlas Group.
What’s the difference between The Atlas Hotel Guest Book and the Reader?
Good point, I should probably make that more clear in the description on my website! The Guest Book is a physical object from the Hotel; it’s a welcome book that greets you when you first arrive. In it there are photos of the guests and captions underneath, written in bad English. The Reader is a booklet that compiles parts of the script, photographs of the characters, and concept drawings. It’s just like a guide meant to help you kind of go through the whole project quickly because there are so many dimensions to it.
What inspired the character development of Nasser al-Safi? Why the Middle Eastern setting in the 1960s, of all decades?
A lot of things inspired Nasser for me, mainly the current political and social situation in the Middle East and my own personal experiences living in it. I set it in that decade because I feel that history gives us a sense of detachment. There are a lot of parallels that I can draw from that period with today, the themes and characters are timeless, their clothes are different.
How did you approach horoscope-themed illustrations for The Man Repeller? I particularly love July’s, as I am a Cancer.
Awesome, thanks! I am a fan of the blog so I just approached them and they liked my work. They suggested I try illustrating the horoscopes and we see how it goes. They are great to work with and the subject is really fun!
If we sift through your sketchbook, what sort of drawings and paintings would we find?
Lots of writing, crazy scribbles written in the middle of the night, storyboards for video ideas, drawings of people, some surreal imagery, maps, descriptions of people I can’t draw, conversations, some fashion doodles, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
You’re the genius behind the typography for the branding of Rookie Magazine. That’s very exciting; how did you create the final image?
Thanks! Unfortunately it wasn’t a really genius move. It just happened very naturally. In the early days of Rookie, we the contributors were kind of getting to know each other over emails and sharing our feelings about Rookie, specifically how excited we were about the launch. For me the only way I could describe what it meant to me was to do it visually and it came out as that logo. The editors ended up liking it and using it!
What do you love about Rookie?
So many things – I could probably write a whole essay about it! I just feel so lucky that I get to work with some of the most talented writers and artists on this planet right now. It’s an amazing experience feeling like you are a part of something that is actually making a difference in this world.
What are some of your favorite articles on Rookie?
Once again, so many! I read it a lot. I always wait anxiously for any writing by Jenny Zhang, Esme Blegvad wrote and drew an incredible comic recently about her grandfather’s death, and there was a fantastic round-table discussion on Kanye West not so long ago. Also the book and film reviews are always great, as well as the Saturday links; I always discover something new!
What’s one color that you think defines you?
I don’t think any one color could possibly define me.
When you need inspiration, who and what do you turn to?
Solitude. I’m constantly taking in information, whether it’s on the Internet, the street, books, magazines, museums, movies, and discussions with friends. So the only time I can really process everything that I’m taking in and figure out what’s actually inspirational is when I schedule a time for myself to just be alone.
You’re constantly traveling around the world, from London to Beirut to New Zealand. Where do you consider home?
Home has a different meaning to me now than it did a couple of years ago. I have many homes now, because the people I love are scattered around the world!
What locations are on your travel bucket list?
More of Indonesia, India, China, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Brazil, Tunisia, Kenya, Madagascar, Iran, and Ghana, Zanzibar, Egypt, Morocco, and of course the Trans-Siberian Express!
What are your favorite locations around the world?
I have so many that I wish I could revisit. Some of my favorite spots are in Lebanon; it’s tiny but it’s packed with so many beautiful places to see and fun things to do. In Beirut there is The Sporting Club for dancing and the Corniche in Ras Beirut to hang out. There are the bars in the Mar Mikhail neighborhood, and the new design stores opening up at the Port. In the north there is the beautiful white cliffs of Chikka and the ancient city of Tripoli, in the south there is an idyllic beach known as Lazy B and the beautiful village of Deir el Qamar.
What songs are on your personal playlist?
It changes a lot! At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Aaliyah, Bappi Lahiri , Kassem Mosse, Bobby Womack, Dean Blunt, Stevie Wonder, Serge Gainsbourg, Mulatu Astatke, Kendrick Lamar, YG, Ali Farka Toure, Pusha T and Kelela.
What are three things most people don’t know about you?
I have a soft spot for ice cream sandwiches, crap TV, and I play the ukulele.
For more of Cynthia’s work, check out her website.