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Egypt, the next global style capital?

By Mark Tutton for CNN
  • Egypt setting out to become international center for design
  • New generation of designers modernizing Egyptian furniture
  • Middle East building boom has exposed people to new ideas
  • Exhibition showcased Egyptian interior design alongside international designers

London, England (CNN) -- A new generation of designers infusing traditional craftsmanship with modern design are marking Egypt out as a future style capital.

The Middle Eastern country has a long tradition of skilled craftsmen working in family-run furniture workshops.

But for decades their output has been characterized by a style known locally as "Louis Farouk," after the Egyptian king who popularized it during the 20th century.

An imitation of the ostentatious "Louis XV" style, named after the 18th century French king, which features elaborate decorations, heavily gilded, intricate carvings, and richly patterned fabrics.

Young Egyptian designers are now leaving behind the excesses of the past for something more restrained -- and much more hip.

Last week, Cairo staged a design exhibition, curated by Italian designer Paola Navone, that could help establish the city as the "Milan of the Middle East."

During the +20 Egypt Design event, international firms such as Alessi exhibited next to their Egyptian counterparts, showing domestic designers can hold their own alongside Europe's finest.

Shahira Fahmy is an architect and product designer whose work was exhibited at +20. She told CNN Egyptian designers have started moving away from imitating foreign styles and are developing their own vision.

"You would find different styles that were all imitations, but now the environment has changed and you can do something new, that is challenging even to the West," she said.

During the 1990s, designers were heavily influenced by late 19th century movement, Art Nouveau, typified by curvilinear designs and floral motifs. Other popular influences included the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Fahmy told CNN.

There's now a demand for contemporary emergent designers to produce something new.
--Shahira Fahmy, architect, designer
  • Interior Design
  • Egypt
  • Design

The construction boom in Dubai and elsewhere in the Middle East had been a catalyst for experimentation, she explained.

According to Fahmy, the boom brought in foreign architects whose progressive designs have led to an appreciation of quality design and increased acceptance of modern styles.

"Architecture, interiors and furniture have all changed in the past 10 years," she said. "There's now a demand for contemporary emergent designers to produce something new. They don't want the classical things that were happening 10 years ago."

Karim Mekhtigian is the creative brains behind Cairo-based design studio, Alchemy. He said Egyptian design is starting to develop its own identity.

"I don't know if we have a distinctive style yet, but I'm sure we can have a specific story to tell which comes from this region," he told CNN.

"Culturally, Egypt is very rich with a lot of different elements, so there is a great potential in design terms."

Having lived and worked in Paris for 15 years, Mekhtigian returned to Cairo 10 years ago and found he was influenced by his surroundings and daily life in Cairo.

"We are living in a geographical place which is multi-layered -- a mixture of cultures, of religions, of everything, and it's one of our sources of inspiration," he said. "It doesn't come out intentionally, but I believe it's there."

Fahmy also uses Cairo as a reference point for her modern designs.

"I am influenced by Cairo's rich and complex heritage, but [I] try to represent that in a new and contemporary language that is representative of the time the product or building was designed," she said.

Both designers say the recent success of Egyptian furniture design is partly down to the work of the Egyptian Furniture Export Council (EFEC), which organized +20.

Chairman Ahmed Helmy told CNN that EFEC has been working to modernize Egypt's furniture industry, which directly employs 600,000 people.

He said efforts to increase production capacity, improve quality control and introduce new machinery at factories have helped increase the value of the furniture industry's exports from $46 million in 2004 to $320 million in 2009, according to EFEC figures.

The new wave of Egyptian design is still be in its infancy, and for Mekhtigian that's part of the attraction.

"Design in Europe is almost saturated," he said. "One of the reasons I came back [to Cairo] is there's a great potential here. Everything has to be done, has to be designed, which is not the case in Europe.

"Egypt is starting from scratch. It is exciting and we are trying to create a new story, not to repeat something. We are fighting not to do the same as Europe. We need to tell you our story."