We’re stuck in a sea of endless traffic on the 6th of October Highway. The call to prayer raises its voice above the screams of car horns.
Flashing billboards provide colour to an otherwise colourless city-scape of offices and unfinished mud-brick houses. Weaving their way through the traffic is a mother clad in a black niqab selling tissues; her young son close by.
It felt ironic that amidst this apparent urban chaos laced with poverty, I was on my way to meet with Dr Amr Abdel Kawi, one of Egypt’s leading contemporary design thinkers and entrepreneurs at his office in the upmarket inner city suburb of Heliopolis.
Contrary to what many may believe, Egypt has an active contemporary design scene and 2010 proved to be a particularly momentous year. In June, it celebrated its inaugural +20 Egypt Design Fair, a week-long celebration of contemporary Egyptian and Italian design curated by Paola Navone throughout the historic streets of Old Cairo (the name +20 derives from Egypt’s international dialling code).
Around the same time, a new high-end design shopping precinct, called Designopolis West, opened on the Alexandria Desert Highway (with Designopolis East scheduled to open in mid 2011) and, forever growing, is a flood of new sprawling residential and commercial developments, among which includes the new Stone Towers designed by Zaha Hadid, catering to a new, evolving middle-class of consumption-hungry Egyptians.
It was a pertinent time to be interviewing Dr Abdel Kawi, the owner of Rhimal, a design consultancy firm, and Magaz, the Middle East’s foremost design magazine – although I didn’t know it yet.
Egypt’s social and political landscape was about to reach its boiling point (I interviewed Dr Abdel Kawi in late November 2010, just before the national elections) and as it happened, I was to also return to Egypt during the first week of the revolution.
Yes, I saw it all. A crucial time for the Egyptian people in all respects, it marked an especially important turning point within the design and creative industries sector – at last, people could find and express a voice of their own.
“Egypt has long been struggling with valuing design and the past decades have suffered because of it,” says Abdel Kawi. “The consequences of the socialist movement founded by President Nasser in the 1960s [which saw the sell-off of many private assets, particularly major industries, to the public sector] severed any links that existed between industry and design because it turned the economy into a seller’s market.
"There were no imports, which meant no competition. Whatever you produced, you sold. Whatever you built, people inhabited. So, accordingly, the economy in general depended less and less on innovators and creators.
"It was not until the 1990s, after President Sadat’s post-open-policy boom, which solidified the values of short-term profits at the expense of any long-term investment in the creative work of design, that Egypt started to wake up to the realities that they had basically destroyed their own environment and created uninhabitable places.”
The late 1990s witnessed a turning point in Egypt’s design and creative industries scene as the government started to realise that for the country to have a competitive edge in the global economy, it needed to be introducing new ideas and products.
“Once the government started to invest in industry, they were also indirectly supporting design activities – they just didn’t know it. Then they started to notice that ‘design’ was the keyword and now it has become a bit of a fad!”
Government lingo, however, is meaningless without a lively and forward-thinking design community – and this is something Egypt continues to grapple with.
“We have over 35 schools of design, or some sort of design, like architecture or engineering in Egypt and students graduate somewhere in the order of 10 000 annually.
"Many of these students change careers, while the lucky ones save up and go overseas. This means we have an abundance of unused talent and even if only one per cent of these graduates have potential talent, then there are still 100 designers out there every year!”
One way Abdel Kawi and his colleagues at Rhimal have tried to foster these graduates (and other emerging designers) is through a series of annual workshops and partnerships.
This includes a mentor-style program where young Egyptian designers are taken under the wing of established international practitioners to learn how to design products for local businesses using a design language that speaks to an international market.
These efforts have proven remarkably successful, culminating with displays at the 2009 Milan Furniture Fair and Egypt’s annual Furnex Furniture Fair, developed by the Egyptian Furniture Export Council.
In conjunction with +20 Egypt Design last year, Rhimal also organised two exhibitions for student works and a program partnering young Egyptian designers with local crafts-people. “These events give visibility to our designers and put us in a global context. It’s what makes the government take notice.”
But, what has long hampered Egyptian designers is not only the limited supporting infrastructure, but more significantly, the confidence to be who they are.
“When we think Egypt, everyone thinks past – even Egyptians. There are very few reasons for people to be outward-looking. We haven’t been very happy with ourselves lately so there is a tendency to look at our ancestors as being better than what we are today. Accordingly, then, the images of the past are more attractive than the images of the present.”
The bleak financial return from a career in design, more so in Egypt, also means there is very little incentive to experiment or use creative conceptual thinking. “Those designers who have succeeded in our country are driven by market demands. The art community is different in that respect.
"For an artist, the resources you need to express yourself are more readily available, but a designer needs an investor, a developer. They can’t realise their work on their own.
"The ones who have succeeded in this country on their own are the ones who end up being their own developers and their own salespeople.”
One of these successful designers is Karim Mekhtigian, founder of Alchemy Design, a Cairo-based interior and furniture design company. “There’s a group of well-known names the market recognises – among the best is Mekhtigian. He has a clear vision, which he is pursuing solidly.”
For the Egyptian people as a whole, however, the recent revolution has provided a new flame of hope. The suffocating blanket of systematic repression that had long been imposed by Mubarak’s government has been lifted and the future of Egypt’s design scene, at least for now, feels full of opportunity.
“The revolution was a breaking out. People realised for the first time that they do have a voice and that their words can actually make a difference. We are still starters in this game and we are probably going to make many mistakes before we get it right – but this is an awakening and the beginning of a new feeling of pride in our identity.”