Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Carpentry tales

Cairo fashions once mirrored those of Paris and the quality of furniture in downtown showrooms matched that in Europe, with traces of that time still being found today, says Mohamed Mursi

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Furniture shops in downtown Cairo are still fond of classical styles, usually expensive due to the luxury finishing and the high quality of the materials used. No wonder, then, that many ordinary families have gravitated to Chinese imports instead, which are more suitable to their budgets.

However, Hamada Othman, who comes from a long line of furniture makers, speaks proudly about the work of his family and of that of other major furniture makers. "I am a third-generation furniture maker. My grandfather, Mohamed Othman, had a furniture showroom in Bab Al-Khalq at the turn of the century, and my father, Hassan Othman, started selling furniture in the 1930s," he says.

According to Othman, European-style furniture made its debut in Cairo towards the end of the 19th century, when Armenians, Italians and the French opened workshops in the city. "Before that, Egyptian carpenters generally either made arabesque pieces or focussed their attention on doors and windows," he comments.

During this early period, demand for what was then considered modern furniture came from the more Westernised classes, those who travelled frequently to Europe and who wanted their homes to reflect European taste, says Othman.

"In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign furniture makers began setting up shop in Cairo, and they started training the locals. Among the first Egyptians who learned the trade was a man named Abdel-Latif El-Sufani, who started as a trainee in a foreign workshop but quickly made a name for himself. He even had a street, located off Sherif Street, named after him."

Others then started their own businesses in turn, among them Mohamed Keshk, Kilati, Hathut and Hassan Othman himself, Othman says. Furniture making went into a slump in the 1960s, when the state began controlling imports, and Egyptian furniture makers, reduced to using inferior wood from the Eastern bloc, felt the brunt of the restrictions.

"Good timber, such as walnut and mahogany, for example, was simply no longer available," Othman recalls.

Othman is also a connoisseur of oyma, a Turkish word for engraved ornaments. Engraving is an art that was practiced by many ancient civilisations, he adds, including the Egyptian and Babylonian, which used wood panels to record their history.

Today, oyma, like certain other techniques, is on the verge of extinction, and Othman comments on the sad fate that has befallen other traditional techniques like the manufacture of woven screens, something that he particularly regrets as the erstwhile "king of the dressing screens".

Many people, however, are still fond of classically styled furniture made out of top quality materials, though they are generally looking for pieces to furnish larger houses or mansions. For most homes, people tend to go for lighter pieces in more modern styles.

"There is less demand now for luxury furniture, due to the competition from the Chinese knock-offs that are sold in many shops in Mohandessin and Heliopolis," Othman notes.

Standards of upholstery have been compromised, he adds, commenting that because quality upholstery can be costly many people now choose more mediocre but affordable versions, with "good upholsterers now being an endangered species."

Othman is nostalgic for the days when Cairo's leading furniture makers competed for a discriminating clientele. He mentions old Egyptian films in which affluent couples are shown visiting the showrooms of manufacturers like Pontremoli, Ali Khalil and Mohamed Keshk to pick up pieces of luxury furniture.

However, even today Egypt's furniture industry is far from being insignificant, with some LE5.3 billion being invested in today's factories, according to the Egyptian Industries Union, most of them in Damietta.

There are some 500 furniture factories in Egypt today, as well as hundreds of workshops. Together, these employ some 43,000 people and contribute nearly six per cent of the country's total GDP.

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