I was intrigued, I admit, when a pop-art-meets-nostalgia design trend took over Cairo’s homeware stores about six years ago. The products had “western” color schemes and patterns while promoting Egyptian pop heritage.
I could now enjoy a warm beverage in a mug that was like me, a mix of things that shouldn’t really go together — Om Kalthoum’s face meets Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints. But after evermore coasters, posters, serving trays and t-shirts emerged featuring iconic figures from Egypt’s “golden era” I began to tire of the deluge of products and their superficial rendering of Egyptian identity, not to mention my own superficial consumption of it.
Talking to several young Egyptian product and furniture designers featured in Dubai Design Week’s exhibition Cairo Now: City Incomplete this month, I found I was not alone. In attempting to find answers for my questions — in a global design culture, what do phrases like cultural appropriation, self-exoticism, and “authentically Egyptian” even mean anymore? — I found that for each of these designers working with so-called Egyptian heritage takes very different forms, but that function, craft, visions for the future and creative thinking are key.
“Our cultural heritage is incredibly rich, thousands of years old, but we almost feel like tourists when approaching it,” points out Lina Alorabi, a self-employed designer who works with a less obvious aspect of Egyptian heritage: the shared social interactions of a vibrant city and boisterous people. On returning to Egypt in 2009 after studying in the UK, Alorabi felt that most products referencing Egyptian heritage were unsuitable for contemporary living spaces. “I don’t relate to a traditional lifestyle, and there’s a lot of Egyptians like me,” she says, explaining that these objects had no relevance to her as a modern person.
Shunning overt symbols, Alorabi’s pieces take inspiration from forms ubiquitous to our visual vernacular. For her shisha table, for example, the recognizable shape of a shisha pipe’s long neck made of lathe-turned wood supports a simple wooden tabletop. It is minimalist and elegant, though inspired by Cairo’s rowdy café culture. Alorabi describes the table as “high-tech low-tech,” in that it is a precision piece, but one that’s created by hand, taking advantage of Egyptian artisans’ longstanding expertise in woodturning, honed through years of carving the once-common latticework wooden window-screens (made of offcuts) known as mashrabiyas.
Her two newest tables reference ancient Egypt through simple geometric shapes and specific materials: bases of blackened brass paired with alabaster tops. “Ancient Egyptian design simplifies the environment to bare essentials,” says Alorabi. “It’s almost international design, reducing everything to its essential form, and using materials with a purpose and not just as decorative elements.”
In a more abstracted interpretation of Egyptian culture, Alorabi’s Big Auntie couch attempts to recreate the feeling of being hugged by an overprotective voluptuous relative. “We have overprotective families,” she explains, “so I thought, why not have an overprotective couch?” Although no symbols or motifs identify it as Egyptian, Alorabi says this unexplored layer of design interests her the most. “There’s form and function, but there’s also the emotional response you’re going to get from a piece,” she says. “That’s kind of what I’m focusing on in Egypt. I can’t really compete, but I can tell a story.”
It was during long walks in Cairo neighborhoods that Studio Meem’s Manar Moursi became interested in the palm-fiber (“gireed”) vegetable crate found on every other street-corner. “I was very attracted to its materiality, imperfection and pattern,” Moursi tells me. “I saw a lot of potential in re-using it.” In 2011 she launched her first product line after researching the crate’s production process. Off the Gireed included palm-fiber seating and shelving units.
Gireed is environmentally sustainable and particularly popular in vernacular architecture (it’s used to make storage crates, furniture and thatched roofs for countryside houses) particularly because of its availability as a natural by-product of palm-tree pruning. Moursi’s products use gireed that is chemically treated to extend its life cycle. “For Off the Gireed the way I worked with ‘heritage’ was to integrate something that was very everyday and classic,” says Moursi, “and try to give it a fresh new life.”
For her Ahwa Sada (plain coffee) table series, Moursi took the battered long-legged tin tables found at Cairo’s coffeehouses, abstracted the base geometry and added a wooden top “to give spunk and boldness to the design.”
Moursi’s pieces seem to slightly alter already-existing objects, and indeed she believes that there is always an element of post-production in any design or artistic process today — referencing an idea from Nicholas Bourriaud’s 2001 book Postproduction – Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World: that artists’ preoccupations must shift from “what can we make that is new?” to “how can we make do with what we have?”
For Abdallah Ragab of Ain Design Studios, the geometric patterns that permeate his designs, reminiscent of the repetitive, tessellating hexagons found throughout the vast tradition of Islamic art and architecture, refer to an even older, deeper connection: our perception of the universe and our place within it. “Our first understanding of a system and its internal mechanisms, the relationship between a part and the whole, came from geometric patterns,” he says.
Although Ragab’s work looks like it references the old, his stance is clear. “I think the use of traditional motifs is inappropriate at this time,” he says. “Although pattern work and symbols were used to express the stories of the ancient peoples who made them, when they’re used now they are handled in all the old ways, as purely ornamental things.” Ragab’s approach is an attempt to understand design from the past yet build something suitable for our times with a focus on form and function, as well as his fascination with modular design and attention to easy assembly and disassembly.
His latest inspiration are muqarnas, a type of ornamental vaulting used to decorate domed entryways, mainly in mosques. Tiers of the muqarnas are made of smaller, repeating units, resembling a honeycomb or cellular structure, a perfect illustration of Ragab’s words on the interplay between part and whole. Using the same mathematics, Ragab created two pieces that do not remotely resemble the muqarnas’ elaborate, almost baroque aesthetic. His Flying Cabinet (see top photo) is a light, easy-to-assemble storage option created without a single nail or screw relying on principles derived from muqarnas. His muqarnas lego set enables children or adults to build structures that can expand endlessly in a process of muqarnas mitosis.
“Pattern designs can be used as a form, a functional necessity,” says Ragab. “We need to look at our heritage with a critical eye and take what we can use from it so we don’t turn it into a myth or an unquestionable faith.”
Noha El Taher is concerned with preserving heritage not through the end-product but the production process. Founder of the recently launched social enterprise Kiliim, Taher says its approach is focused on supporting the continuation and development of the traditional Kilim weaving technique, and providing new designs and bigger markets for these hand-woven rugs.
“The craft itself hasn’t been passed on to younger generations,” says Taher. “The owner of our workshop has two sons but neither of them know how to weave.”
Kiliim works with a workshop that employs around 15 craftsmen in the village of Fowwa in the northern governorate of Kafr al-Sheikh. Their designs do not stray far from the geometric patterns of familiar Kilim, but focus on technique and weave quality; a craftsman can spend up to a week working on one rug.
“We’re still inspired by geometric shapes, although we use fewer colors,” says Taher. “The design can be made more contemporary as long as the Kilim is made in the traditional manner.”
Should attention to preserving heritage elements, or the compulsion to cater to a contemporary design culture take precedence? “I think its silly to define yourself so strictly, cultures change and shift, now more than ever,” is Orabi’s blunt response. Besides its omnipresence, this points to exactly what I found off-putting about the Egyptian nostalgia design trend: its disregard for the malleable nature of our global urban culture, and its marketing of a stagnant romanticism.
“It’s nostalgia. It was a method of documentation in the past five or so years when it first came out, but the market consumed it until it became meaningless,” says Ragab, cautioning against deifying the old at the risk of “living in the past with no vision for the future.”
As for cultural appropriation, should it be acceptable for designers on a global scale to use symbols developed in Eastern civilizations such as the khamsa (the five-fingered palm outstretched in protection), or the ein (the blue eye meant to ward off malicious gazes) in contexts devoid of their original meaning? And should it be acceptable to borrow from ourselves, to use symbols or hieroglyphs that may once have meant something, but now mostly just conjure an image of “Egypt” (both the geographical place and the notion)?
“Being Egyptian is such a layered identity, past, present and heritage, that many things can fit into the label of ‘authentically Egyptian’,” says Moursi. “For me the more successful work is that which attempts to add layers of interpretation and information, rather than being literal.”