Dubai Design Week has selected Cairo as the focus of this year’s Iconic City exhibition, a series of annual exhibitions launched in 2015 that explores the culture and design scene of individual cities within the Middle East.
Cairo Now! A City Incomplete captures for the first time under one roof the Egyptian capital’s current design landscape and celebrates innovation and emerging talent in the fields of product, furniture, graphic and typeface design as well as architecture.
Curated by Cairo-based architect, independent researcher and writer Mohamed Elshahed, more than 65 Egyptian architects, designers, entrepreneurs and graphic artists will contribute to a presentation, inspired by the city’s infamous red brick housing stock that appears in varying stages of completion across the capital.
The theme of incompleteness is a reflection of the city’s status quo: its disjointed transport system, partially restored historic buildings, expansion into the desert with partly realized satellite cities, speculative urbanism where buildings are never fully completed to avoid taxation, and the tendency to leave concrete sticking out of roofs in the hope of adding additional floors in the future.
This theme is extended to the unrealised potential of the city’s current generation of designers.
In addition to the exhibition, Mohamed Elshahed is the curator for the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project, founder of local architecture and urbanism blog Cairobserver and eponymous magazine in 2011 and teacher of architectural history at the American University in Cairo. On the exhibition, he said: “Cairo Now! sheds light on the city’s emerging designers who, despite the lack of a marketplace or an infrastructure supporting their practices, continue to innovate, to turn the city’s trash into new products and revive fading traditions with a contemporary edge. They always take Cairo with all its flaws as their muse and as the source of their creativity. The city’s zeitgeist is reflected in their often satirical take on the absurdities that make up contemporary Cairo. ”
The furniture selected for Cairo Now! references every era of Egyptian history. Pieces by Studio Meem (www.studiomeem.me) reference contemporary Cairene life. Its Off the Gireed collection reinterprets the humble palm fibre crate used to transport chickens, fruit and vegetables. Ahwa Sada tables are inspired by institutional ‘ahwas’ (coffee houses), and the Supernatural-Deliciosa Table by the leaves of common houseplants.
Reform Studio (www.reformstudio.net) showcases Plastex, fabric that’s handmade from plastic bags and recycled cotton with two pieces from its Sixties-inspired Grammy’s Collection and two from its Chaotic Design Collection, which celebrates Egyptians’ ingenuity for upcycling broken street chairs.
Ain Bicycles (www.ainbicycles.com) epitomises Egyptian innovation and resourcefulness. Brightly coloured, single-speed bikes are customised at a workshop that doubles as a cyclists’ community centre, with locally sourced frames and camel leather seats from a tannery near The Pyramids.
Encode Studio (www.encodestudio.net) uses CAD and CAM computer software to create indoor and outdoor furniture inspired by traditional shipbuilding in Alexandria. Its elegant, modular Parallel wall cladding system mimics ripples on water and comes in ten different designs in wood or GRC (glass fibre reinforced cement).
Lighting presented at Cairo Now! ranges from the elegant (Salsabeel Amin’s marble and brass Ore collection and Ultra Design’s 3D Light) to the quirky (Mohamed Nabil Labib’s Lighting Wheel made from discarded bicycle parts and Dina Naguib’s recycled pipes and meat grinders).
The theme of upcycling continues with backpacks, totes, beach bags and passport holders made from plastic bags by Up-fuse (www.up-fuse.com) and everyday objects painted in bright rainbow colours by Medhat Benzoher.
Original, interesting and versatile Arabic fonts are in woefully short supply in the design world. When Mohamed Gaber’s type foundry Kief (kieftype.com) launched Cairo, a new contemporary Arabic/Latin typescript, for free in the spring, it was downloaded almost 14 million times. Cairo Now! curator Elshahed chose to use the font throughout the exhibition and appointed Ahmad Hammoud, who designs his magazine Cairobserver, to produce the exhibition publication.
Maps by Transport for Cairo, Valerie Arif and Ghada Waly demonstrate how clever graphic design can rationalise the city’s chaotic street grid, complex bus system and metro lines, and a series of graphic posters showcase everything from political comment and art exhibitions to the preservation of fonts used on old shop signs in Downtown Cairo.
Three photos as well as an edited video of cutting-edge architect Shahira Fahmy’s abandoned luxury villas overlooking the Pyramids at Giza tie in with the theme of the exhibition. Fahmy was a leading architect in Egypt until her career was cut short when investors pulled out of Egypt following the 2011 uprising, and she has since quit the profession to focus on acting.
Architect Samir El Kordy, who has become renowned for his use of unconventional materials and space solutions, showcases his recently completed Gym House.
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