When you think of Egypt, the first image that probably springs to your mind is of the pyramids of Giza, or hieroglyphics, or some vague imagining of camels walking along the banks of the Nile. Even if these images loom large in many people’s understanding of Egypt, the tourist industry has struggled in the past several years due to bombings and political instability. The decline of tourism—along with little government funding or cultural support—has created challenges for the country’s contemporary design scene.
But the country’s designers and thought leaders are taking matters into their own hands. Mohamed Elshahed, an architectural historian and curator who focuses on Egyptian design, curated an exhibition of Egyptian design during New York design month in May. For the first time ever, the event’s large commercial show WantedDesign had a pavilion dedicated just to designers from Egypt. Exhibitions like the one at New York design week, along with others in Dubai and the U.K., like the British Museum’s Modern Egypt project, are helping to expose Egyptian design to the rest of the world. And according to Elshahed, things are looking up: the WantedDesign pavilion was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and the country’s Industrial Modernization Center, a government program that aims to support entrepreneurs and innovators and help make Egypt more competitive.
Contemporary Egyptian design has a secret weapon: the country’s traditional crafts. The New York show featured 13 Egyptian contemporary designers who work in a variety of fields, from textiles to metalwork and furniture. All the studios, while forward-looking in their aesthetic, support traditional craftspeople and use materials that Egyptian artisans have used for centuries.
For instance, one studio called Kiliim makes beautiful woven textiles called kilim, using a technique that’s common throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. While the studio is based in Cairo, all of the fabrics, which have been updated with modern designs from the young studio, are made in the village of Fowa, where Egyptian kilim has traditionally been produced. Instead of trying to compete with the craftspeople who live in Fowa, the studio has decided to support them: Kiliim hired 14 locals, who produce between 400 and 600 pieces every few months.
Then there is Mizaj Tiles, a design studio that makes custom cement tiles by hand. The studio uses a complex, centuries-old technique called encaustic where the designers mix colored cement and then set the material using high pressure and natural drying.
Designer Rasha El Gammal of the studio Asfour El Nil transforms furniture through embroidery that Cairo’s tent makers—artisans who sell colored fabrics traditionally used for large street tents in the 17th-century Al Khayameya market—have been creating for 1,000 years. Many of today’s tent makers are struggling because the designs are now easier to print than to stitch by hand, and their primary audience has become tourists. But El Gammal turns some of the most iconic tent designs into appliques for her chairs (see below).
El Gammal’s work hints at one of the central tensions in contemporary Egyptian design. As Elshahed puts it: “This is not ancient Egypt. This is a way in which a contemporary design studio is incorporating some of [Egyptian history] into their products.”
Elshahed is wary of the tendency for Egyptian design today to rely too heavily on references to the past, which he believes can keep the discipline from moving forward. “Egypt is gifted in one way with tremendous history, but it’s also a burden,” he says. “There’s such a heavy awareness that there’s something great that used to be here, so our present doesn’t match the image of the glorious past. You’re constantly trying to uncover or reconnect with any perceived idea of the past.”
One way designers are invoking the past–without resorting to stereotypes–is by using the same materials and some of the same forms that were used in Ancient Egypt. Designer Essr Fathy works with a variety of different native Egyptian stones, including alabaster. For one series, she made a set of modern vases that use the deconstructed shape of canopic jars, which were used in ancient Egypt to store the remains of the dead. Her project aims to create more jobs in the city of Luxor, where alabaster is traditionally mined, since tourism to the area’s monuments has dropped off in recent years. “It’s a little bit less direct reference to the past, but for me a more interesting one,” Elshahed says.
Other designers are eschewing the past altogether in favor of other uniquely Egyptian references. One studio called Cairopolitan doesn’t look to Egypt’s ancient history at all and instead focuses on everyday material culture. One of the studio’s products references the clay water jugs that dot the public spaces of Egyptian cities, but Cairopolitan made miniaturized versions that act as salt and pepper shakers.
Another product is an exact replica of the cafe chairs that you see in nearly every Egyptian coffee shop. But instead of making the chair out of wood, the studio makes it out of aluminum, a metal that’s abundant in Egypt and has become a national export. “To take a cheap wooden coffee shop chair and turn it into this heavy silver-looking object, it elevates its value immediately,” Elshahed says. “It’s a like a Koons version of the chair.”
Practicing design in Egypt remains a challenge: The scene is small, and it’s difficult to find the resources—including technology, talent, and tools—to implement a big idea. “There isn’t an authority that publishes a magazine on design in Egypt or a marketplace, a destination to get this kind of design goods. Everyone works on their own,” Elshahed says.
There’s also less local support of design than you’d find in a design capital like Milan or New York. Egyptians tend to buy products from outside Egypt because they see these goods as more modern and prestigious than anything homegrown. “If you can buy a German car as an Egyptian, you’re saying you can afford it and [you’ve] joined the universal idea of what modernity means,” Elshahed says. “No one is rushing to the market to buy a piece of Egyptian craft or design unless it’s the relatively [cheap] tourist audience.”
But with more international exhibitions and support through the sorts of governmental programs that brought these designers to New York earlier this year, Egypt’s designers hope to reach broader audiences both at home and abroad–keeping traditional craft alive through contemporary design.