Egypt is swelling with homegrown designers who are deftly innovating in the fields of lighting, interiors, furniture and even paper products. Using local craftsmanship, designers including Randa Fahmy, Dina Shoukry and the craft cooperative El Nafeza are giving unique and varied interpretations to the motifs, materials and symbols of Egyptian culture. The heightened political interest in contemporary Egypt has corresponded with a rising interest in Egyptian art and design as well as an increase in the price of pieces. Here is a brief tour - and perhaps investment guide.
Paper was invented in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago, when thin sheets of papyrus, a reedy plant growing along the Nile, were pressed together and dried. The practice has been revived by a new non-profit organisation in Cairo. El Nafeza, which means "window" in the Egyptian Arabic dialect, produces paper from natural fibres such as rice straw, banana leaves, sugar cane and linen.
The materials give each sheet thickness, texture and a unique colour, but the effort is not just aesthetic. Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and a key contributor to air pollution is the burning of agricultural waste. In one year, more than 10.5 million tonnes of agricultural waste are burnt, perpetuating the black mass that hangs over the city's skyline.
El Nafeza was founded in 2002 by the Egyptian artist Mohamed Abou El Naga, and production has increased to the point where the organisation now recycles more than two tonnes of agricultural waste each month.
Aside from environmental conservation, El Nafeza aims to create jobs. In a country with over 80 million people and chronic unemployment (which was recently exacerbated by the political revolution), artisanal, ecologically friendly papermaking represents a viable source of income. It requires low capital and has high international demand. And since unemployment and agricultural waste tend to occur in rural areas, papermaking connects the needs and output of local communities.
To carry out the expansive paper production at the workshop based in the El Foustat district of Cairo, El Nafeza employs 15 workers, mostly women who have hearing or speech impairments or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The organisation also runs courses at local universities to teach papermaking. One hundred and fifty students study Art and Education run by El Nafeza through the University of Cairo, while in Upper Egypt at Esna College, more than 100 men and women participate in a papermaking training programme.
El Nafeza produces notebooks, photo albums, bags, frames, boxes, lampshades and stationery. Throughout Egypt, such items can be purchased at luxury hotels, bazaars, charity markets and art galleries, while internationally, the organisation's products can be purchased from its website.
El Nafeza was recently selected for admission to Ashoka, the leading social entrepreneurship association in the Arab world. The BBC is also planning for a documentary on the organisation to premiere in October, as part of the BBC's World Challenge 2011.
Randa Fahmy's designs have been the secret of architects and interior designers across the Middle East and the world. Her custom-made lighting fixtures hang in the palaces of royalty and five-star hotels across the region, and her name has become synonymous with quality, handcrafted, elaborate lighting.
In the UAE, Fahmy has designed lighting for the Aga Khan Centre, the Intercontinental Dubai Festival City, Madinat Jumeirah and Sheikh Hamdan Mosque.
While intricate chandeliers and sconces have earned Fahmy a sterling reputation, her repertoire is incredibly diverse. Interiors, furniture, tile work and architecture all fall under her purview and that of her atelier, a 10-person team based in Cairo.
While the Randa Fahmy design team regularly maintains a collection of standard ready-to-purchase lighting fixtures and furniture, the majority of the atelier's work comes from large projects involving custom, made-to-order pieces. In the past year, a hotel in Chicago opted for Fahmy to construct a 182-metre-long ornamental metal screen to hang in the atrium lobby. She was also chosen as the lead designer for the renovation of the Old and New Cataract Hotels in Aswan, Egypt, which will open in 2012. She will craft the lighting, furniture, interior and exterior decor.
Although Randa specialises in executing a range of Arabic designs and motifs, from expansive glass and metal chandeliers for mosques or ballrooms to highly intricate bronze mashrabiya, she also carries out projects in other styles. "If you can work in Arabic designs, you can do anything," she says, adding that her projects have included Art Deco, Art Nouveau and ultra modern aesthetics, and that she trained as a painter.
Design, however, combined all of her many interests. "I discovered when designing a piece that I could paint, sculpt and use all those art techniques at once."
Her products are made by 70 skilled workers in a factory on the outskirts of Cairo. It is a source of pride for the business that each product is made with Egyptian artistry and craftsmanship. "I'm depending on Egyptians," Randa says, adding that improving the quality of life for the country goes hand-in-hand with her aesthetic aims.
"If I hire 60 people, that is 60 families, and each one has four or five people, so I'm talking about hundreds of people that the work is supporting." With exports now accounting for more than 60 per cent of Fahmy's commissions, anticipate seeing more of Randa Fahmy's work across the globe.
Just over one year ago, Dina Shoukry was working in the marketing department of her family's company in Cairo. She enjoyed the job but dreampt of being a designer.
A trip to Malaysia injected a desire for change. After developing an affection for feng shui, the art of aesthetic balance, she resolved to pursue her passion.
In only her first year of active design, it seems the risk is paying off. Shoukry's debut collection has generated attention both within Egypt and abroad, and she is planning on exhibiting at notable international design expos.
Dina has gained notice and praise for her ability to craft pieces that are fun, daring, explicitly Arab and Egyptian, yet adhering to modern tastes. Take her Shisha Table, for instance: by using water pipes in simple primary colours as table legs, Shoukry balances chic, playful and stylish. Using such mundane items in bespoke designs runs the risk of out-and-out garishness, but Shoukry makes the lightness of each piece work. The Shisha Table, now a signature piece in her debut collection, also occasioned a watershed moment for the young designer. "I had a tingling feeling about that table," she says. One year later, "I still feel a real connection with it".
Shoukry's current line includes a host of other tables. "For me, a table is the nucleus of a room; your entire routine revolves around it, but it is usually chosen last to complement the rest of the room." Thus she has moved the table from a utilitarian afterthought to the centre of the conversation with a series of coffee and side tables that break the mould.
Foremost is the Copper Bowls table, a smooth, wooden table with concave legs and a top with inlaid copper bowls of various sizes. A small fringe adorns the upper edge of the table. The simple profile contrasts sharply with the lavishness of the bowls and fringe, and the utter practicality of it for casual entertaining. Notable as well is the Chandelier side table, which is a standard round side table with a colourful beaded chandelier hanging within it.
Shoukry's key innovation has been a habit of lifting up Arabic motifs and accessories, then taking a novel approach to blending such elements with traditional forms. What lies ahead for the talented designer is undoubtedly wider acclaim and success.
Dina Shoukry's furniture is available from her showroom in Cairo and the Cities Gallery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia