Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 June 2004
Issue No. 694
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Carving a global niche

Egyptian furniture designers have fashioned a new style combining ethnic touches with modern design. Sherine Nasr writes

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Egyptian designers are starting to bac k away from duplication mode, and instead fashioning their own culturally influenced styles

Around the world, east and west have been strategically blended to fashion global fads appealing in their ethnic lure. The Far and Near East have both been sold to the world through the popularising of new-age spiritual funk.

Egypt has not quite been pulled onto that bandwagon, but within the furniture industry, a blending of its own is taking place. The grounds of the Furnex 2004 exhibit, Egypt's first international furniture and furnishing trade fair, served as a podium for the experiment -- the icon for the fair being the chair of Queen Hateb Harris, King Khufu's mother, known to have appreciated the craft of carpentry mastered by the Ancient Egyptians.

"Today, we are still able to impress the world with our beautiful works," said Magdi Ibrahim Khalil, owner of the October Factory for Engineering Furniture and Arabesque. "I have worked towards preserving a family craft for three successive generations, but also reviving the beautiful art of arabesque and introducing it to the international market in styles suited to the foreign customer."

In the past the strife to duplicate Western styles sent Egyptian designers into a characterless rut. Khalil believes the real success lies in the ability to adapt traditional arts to evolving global taste.

"This is what India managed to do and it conquered the world with typical Indian-styled furniture," he says. "And this is what I have been very successfully doing for the past couple of years." Khalil started to export his arabesque chairs, beds, lamp stands and minibars to the USA several years ago -- the mark of another boost in business.

To the Arab world, products tend to be more extravagant -- somewhat garish. "They are definitely larger in size and much more ornamented than those exported to Europe or the States."

The export of arabesque-influenced pieces has gathered momentum, the stylistic implication of "arabesque" progressively being recognised for its design attributes and unbounded from its former branding of "Islamic".

"Arabesque simply means the art of vertical lines," explained Khalil. "The art was definitely revived and developed at the Islamic age later."

Ancient Egyptian influences also imprinted themselves on the works of numerous designers on exhibit: Dar Alandalus, a design company employing plexi glass its specialty material of choice, dabbled with gold-plated accessories and motifs reflecting different eras of the nation's historic heritage; Ancient Egyptian, Islamic, and Arabised classic and modern.

The "rustic-modern" furniture captured part of the show, highlighted by Delta Egypt. Popular in resorts and homes along Egypt's numerous coastal resorts, the rustic-modern employ natural oak carved with simple, countrified designs.

"The lovely light rustic designs, natural wood, hand-made wood carvings have all made our products unique and time-lasting," said company chairman Adli Tanani, explaining that the moulding of this distinct style has appealed to the five-star hotels and beach owners seeking a light, bare-essential type look.

Textiles too played with the Eastern flair, with Deebtex, perhaps one of the oldest companies in the market in the field of textiles (established in 1964), displaying upholstery and curtain fabric possessing an ethnic imprint or touch. The products have been met with high demand from European importers, and as well in altered form from the countries of North Africa and the Gulf.

One corner of the Madinet Nasr exhibit explored the sphere of leather decoration, resin and stone casting -- often found in Egyptian crafts. Painting on leather, leather sofas, and stone cast side-tables received affirmative response.

Amidst these innovative displays and distinct blends of culturally influenced styles, however, the ultra-modern, ultra-classic cliques popular in many Egyptian homes were also on show.

Venturing into the purely classical styles, companies exhibiting collections of antique reproductions were countless, including sets complete to furnish entire homes. Typical reproductions were those of classical French and English pieces -- 17th and 18th century, Louis XV, Louis XVI and the Empire periods -- furnishing complete houses. Such lavish gold- tinted pieces market predominantly to Middle Eastern palaces and homes.

The event marks a turning point in the Egyptian furniture manufacturing industry, bringing together some 250 buyers representing 190 international furniture companies from 36 countries.

"It took almost one year of preparation and planning to establish Furnex 2004 perception among reputable buyers in potential markets such as the USA, the EU and the Middle East," said Adham Nadim, board member of the Egyptian Exporters' Association (ExpoLink), which co-sponsored the event in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Nadim said that the target goal is to maximise the annual Egyptian furniture exports from $200 million to $700 million in three years and to one billion within five years -- a task that will entail convincing the international market of the quality of Egyptian products and distinctness of their designs.

The past two years have marked significant steps on that agenda, with ExpoLink participating in eight international trade fairs, and sending as well trade missions to France, Italy, Denmark and the UK.

"We have made big steps in the right direction," said Tanani of Delta Egypt. "However, more needs to be done before Egypt can have a fair share in the international wood industry business, which is estimated at approximately $140 billion."

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