Egypt Pulse

Ancient Egyptian designs mingle with Scandinavian minimalism

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Article Summary
A hands-on program brings Danish design students to workshops in Damietta and the Nile Valley.

When it comes to furniture, Egypt is rarely seen as an innovator or cutting-edge producer.

Even in 2019, the 35,000 registered workshops in the Nile Delta city of Damietta are churning out pieces largely based on models from the 19th century — in a style contemporary designers sometimes refer to derisively as “Louis Farouk,” known for its gilded and ornate features.

But a new partnership between the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and two Egyptian furniture manufacturers has brought young Danish design students in contact with producers. The partnership is helping to introduce Scandinavian sensibilities to local producers, which, in turn, opens their horizons for new export markets.

“Today, Egypt makes furniture that is most often inspired by French and Italian designs from the 18th and 19th century, and contemporary Danish minimalism is some distance away from the Louis Philippe style,” said Andreas Lund, a professor of furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy. “But of course, Egypt has its own impressive history of design, and in the mid-20th century important Danish interior architects took inspiration from pharaonic pieces that came to global attention with the discoveries of Howard Carter in the ancient tombs of Luxor.”

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The iconic Egyptian folding chair is one of the best-known pieces of Ole Wanscher (1903- 1985), a top-tier Danish furniture designer. And Danish Modernist Mogens Lassen (1901-1987) is known for an Egyptian table inspired by folding stands found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

Lund told Al-Monitor he hopes his school’s field program in Egypt — two weeks in November and another 10 days in January, with 19 Danish students collaborating with local university counterparts, manufacturers and retail outlets — results in a beneficial exchange of ideas about the design and production of home furnishings.

“We created this project to re-engage Danes with Egyptian influences, but also to get an audience here inspired by modern design,” said Lund.

Scandinavian ideas about minimalist design and environmental sustainability are taking hold in the most unlikely of Egyptian settings.

In the Nile Valley hamlet of al-Qayat, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, industrial engineer Omar Moneim, 28, has set up a furniture factory, which since 2011 has turned out tables and chairs made of palm tree midribs.

Moneim’s company, Jereed, received funds from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency in 2015 to develop a wood substitute from palm tree waste.

“The Jereed palm midribs have been used for centuries to make the traditional crates that Egyptians used to use as boxes to cart flat bread from bakeries into neighborhoods,” Moneim told Al-Monitor. “We don't have forests here, but we have more than 100 million palm trees in the Arab world. Collaboration with the Royal Institute of Fine Arts is a pleasure for us as we try to develop new designs for furniture.”

Danish design students Liv Marie Romer and Astri Reinertsen Sorgard took inspiration from these bread boxes when they built a folding sofa as their project for the Royal Institute’s Egypt fieldwork experience.

“That bread box you see everywhere in Cairo is where the grid structure comes from,” Sorgard told Al-Monitor at Pinocchio, an upscale interior design showroom in suburban Maadi, south of Cairo, where the students and their Egyptian partners gathered Jan. 12 for an exhibition of their work. “We decided to make a daybed because it was a piece of furniture often seen in ancient Egypt.”

Pinocchio’s design and marketing manager, Amr Orensa, worked with staff from the Copenhagen arts academy and the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute to ensure the students could produce their schematics within a two-week timeframe.

“Many furniture companies in Denmark have moved production to China, and that is an issue, as these design students don't have the hands-on opportunities to go to the factories like their Egyptian counterparts do,” Orensa told Al-Monitor. “I think some of these items designed by the students can be sold in the Egyptian market — others might be sold with some little modifications. There is a very big difference between the taste of customers in Denmark and in Egypt.”

Pinocchio has its own factory in Damietta, the Nile Delta city that accounts for 70% of Egypt’s exports, according to the Furniture Export Council, a local trade group.

“For me this has been a good opportunity because now I know what the Danish market needs,” said Orensa.

Hans-Christian Bach, a 27-year-old design student, is already talking to Orensa about a production run for his minimalist stool, which is based on the form of neck rests found in ancient tombs.

“I already spoke to Amr to get an estimate of what it would cost to do a production run for my stool,” Bach said. “Just minutes after uploading pictures of it on social media I had 10 people who said they wanted to buy it.”

But the young Dane stressed that the value of the encounter with Egypt and the Egyptians transcended commercial viability.

“Egypt is way closer to Denmark than China is and, in these times, where sustainability and carbon emissions are high on everybody's mind, I think it's a good idea to try and take the whole production facility and move it a bit. Closer to where the product is actually being sold,” Bach said.

He added, “You should have seen the smiles on the faces of the Damietta factory workers when I told them that the form language for my piece is inspired by an ancient Egyptian design. You felt their pride about making something new which is relevant today and yet has roots in the culture of their ancestors.”

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Jacob Wirtschafter is a Cairo-based writer whose work appears in USA Today, The Washington Times and the global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle. 

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