Dubai Design Week has selected Cairo for this year’s Iconic City exhibition, and this one looks a significant upgrade on the inaugural show last year which focused on Beirut.
The idea is to explore (or at least illustrate) the culture and design scene of specific cities within the Middle East. The title – Cairo Now! A City Incomplete – is itself interesting: Cairo seems to reinvent itself (or be remoulded by external forces) to reflect each new convulsion of the political landscape, while at the same time it houses a massive social range and is home to a vibrant design landscape.
The theme of incompleteness is also a reflection of the city’s status quo – its disjointed transport system, patchily restored historic buildings, partly realised satellite cities, a tax regime that penalises completed buildings, am optimistic tendency to leave roofs unfinished in the hope of adding extra floors in the future.
There are good reasons why Cairo is incomplete, and good reasons to hope that some of the gaps will be filled (or at least that some of the pathways will be constructed) by the emerging talents in the fields of product, furniture, architecture, and graphic and typeface design that will be highlighted in this show.
There will be more than 65 contributors – architects, designers, entrepreneurs and graphic artists – and the presentation will be inspired by the city’s infamous red brick housing stock that appears in varying stages of completion across the capital.
The subject matter has real potential, and the curator has excellent credentials. Mohamed Elshahed is a Cairo-based architect and writer who teaches at the at the American University in Cairo, founded and runs the local architecture and urbanism blog Cairobserver, and curated the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project.
Here’s his take on the exhibition: “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.”
There’s some interesting furniture, especially modern takes on traditional crafts and influences; and product design ranges from the sophisticated (CAD/CAM from Encode Studios) to essential repurposing (plastic recycled into backpacks and tote bags by Up-fuse, Reform Studio’s Plastex fabric handmade from plastic bags and recycled cotton).
Traditional Egyptian craft is celebrated, too, with a number of exhibits for distinctive ceramics, tiles, cookware and rugs. Traditional Cairo is represented in other ways as well, not least through the affectionate and/or academic collections of images – like Noha Zayed and Basma Hamdy’s Found Khatt, a book that records calligraphic scripts on shopfronts, houses, trucks, boats and schools; and Studio Meem’s Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo which archives the city’s distinctive, upcycled street furniture.
In the digital space, Ahmad Hammoud focuses on visual culture on his online, open-source archive, whilst urban researcher Amr Abotawila and photographer Sondos Seif El-Din are recording fading hand-drawn advertisements of yesteryear painted onto building facades for their Dead Walls project.
There’s some art, too, notably Ibrahim Ahmed’s textile-based ‘bricks’ and street artist Agnes Michalczyk (aka The Mozza). Rana Elnemr’s Telekinesis , a video collage of balcony designs across Egypt, will be showing. And Maged El Sokkary’s digital artwork depicts cities as portraits crowned with architectural features, a neat take on urban perceptions.
And Cairo is proving a hotbed of good graphic design right now – the new Istanbul? – as exemplified by a good selection of practical work. There are maps (including one that rationalises Cairo’s labyrinthine public transport system); updated hieroglyphics on branding; and well-designed publications like Ganzeer’s successful graphic novel Solar Grid.
Exhibition space is also reserved for initiatives that animate and preserve Cairo’s public realm, among them Studio 39’s designs for shopfronts along one of Cairo’s downtown pedestrianised streets and the redesign of the Kodak Passageway by CLUSTER (Cairo Lab for Urban Studies). Social issues come into play with Takween’s designs for a playground for Syrian refugees in the desert outskirts of the city. Community engagement is the focus of Ahmed Zaazaa’s Madd collaborative platform where residents of the Maspero Triangle can debate Norman Foster’s masterplan for the area.
|The Muqarnas motif, common in Islamic architecture, has been re-interpreted by Abdallah Ragab from Ain Design Studio as a cantilevered Flying Cabinet inspired by the modern Danish console – it comes flatpacked and is constructed without adhesives, nails or screws.
|The Neo-Egypt Chair by Eman Sherif from NOSS Designs combines local craftsmanship, modern proportions and a design inspired by an ancient Egyptian mural.
|Block B Furniture has re-imagined the Louis Farouk armchair, icon of middle-class interiors, with plastic and cowhide upholstery and vivid colourways.
|Ain Bicycles epitomizes Egyptian resourcefulness. Brightly coloured, single-speed bikes are customized at a workshop that doubles as a cyclists’ community centre, with locally sourced frames and camel leather seats.
|Encode Studio uses CAD/CAM computer software to create indoor and outdoor furniture inspired by traditional shipbuilding in Alexandria. Its elegant, modular Parallel wall cladding system extends the furntiutre line to mimic ripples on water.
|Cairo’s most ubiquitous construction material, the humble red brick, is reinterpreted as sculpture by Ibrahim Ahmed. Each unique piece has the appearance of hardness but challenges notions of perception and reality as every one is composed of around 100 layers of textiles from around the world, sourced from local markets.
|Original, interesting and versatile Arabic fonts are in woefully short supply in the design world. When Mohamed Gaber’s type foundry Kief aunched Cairo, a new free contemporary Arabic/Latin typescript, it was downloaded almost 14 million times. Cairo Now! curator Elshahed has used the font throughout the exhibition.
|Serialised dystopian graphic novel Solar Grid by Ganzeer suggest the talents of local illustrators. “Big, complex, eccentric, with some marvellous stylistic choices,” said one review.
|Photographic works include Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo which archives the city’s distinctive upcycled street furniture.