Makram Khalil started a family business specialising in furniture manufacturing. A decade later, brothers Cherif and Ramy Makram, both passionate about design, decided to take the family business into a more design-oriented direction and created the brand &CAIRO, furniture design inspired by the city and lifestyle of Cairo. Inspired by vintage and retro pieces unique to Cairo’s character, the brothers set out to capture the city’s by using materials that emphasise craftsmanship in what is dubbed “Makramish Style”.
KM: Why is Cairo the influence for &CAIRO’s work? How do you feel the items you create capture the city’s essence and how do you extract elements for your design work?
Cherif Makram: The first collection was about capturing what Cairo meant to people from different backgrounds. The concept was to allow each designer to tell his story with Cairo; the designs took the form of abstract representations of their impression of the city.
Looking at the collection, you can notice that the inspirations ranged from tangible to intangible depending on their experiences. If we take the Utchat Stool by Rami Makram, it is apparent that my brother was inspired from the Ancient Egyptian symbol of “Eye of Horus”, which is a symbol for the ability to spiritually perceive what is illuminated, as well as that which is hidden. On the other hand, the Prop Console by Viable London originated from the chaotic construction sites showing sleek buildings covered with intricately detailed steel scaffoldings.
The L Lounge Seat by Karim Mekhtigian is a good representation of the multiple sides of the city, as it mixes and matches different styles into what becomes a coherent whole. As for the K Table, it was for me a representation of the traditional coffee-shop table, which is a staple design item from Downtown Cairo.
KM: Why reflect Cairo exclusively as opposed to a more cosmopolitan approach?
Rami Makram: If anyone ever visits Cairo, they will know how overwhelming it can be. There are so many ways to experience the city; it’s not only about the physical journey but also about its very strong emotional and spiritual aspect. Therefore, we attempted to go into the heart of the Cairene experience and dig inside ourselves to stay true to the authenticity of our little story.
KM: What is the significance behind the name &CAIRO?
Cherif Makram: Well for us it means, “Us and Cairo”, “Us and the city we grew up in” and “Us and the city we live in” but it’s also about other people’s experience with the city. In our first collection, we featured different international designers and they all, in one way or another, expressed their experience with Cairo in their designs.
If you think about it, &CAIRO is more intriguing, it makes you wonder what’s behind the name and what’s the story. We could’ve chosen a more self-explanatory name like “Us & Cairo” or “We & Cairo” but we didn’t want to limit ourselves to this one side of the city.
Rami Makram: Cairo has so many layers that could be unravelled and it would be too bad if we only limited ourselves to the only side that we know. Honestly, working on this brand allowed us to explore and experience new things in the city we’ve been living in for more than 20 years. That being said, &CAIRO is also a dedication to the city and all its hidden treasures, whether tangible or intangible.
KM: What do you see as the history and future of furniture design in the Arab region?
Karim Mekhtigian: The history of the region when it comes to design has been really low-key. The potential of the Arab region has not been exploited to its best, there’s so much raw talent and hidden resources that we have to learn to manage better.
For a very long time, we have believed that we were not up to par with international standards. However, I think we’re realising that sometimes design standards might be different from a European to Occidental and Oriental industry. There’s also a realisation that these standards are not specifically related to quality but to design characteristics that may vary from one region to another. For example, European countries are leaning towards industrial designs while maybe Arab countries would prefer a more emotional approach towards design. In that case, the characteristics change from high-tech to human-tech.
KM: When working with other designers, how do you ensure coherence in your concept and brand?
Cherif Makram: Well, we contributed to the creative mix with our own designs and ideas but generally we have a detailed design brief, which we send to all the designers we work with. This brief has been created by our Art Director Karim Mekhtigian, to make sure that all our collaborators have the same understanding of the brand as we do.
The document goes into details about all the different aspects of the brand from its concept to corporate identity to an elaborate explanation of the company’s visual language and inspirations. There’s also a complete section for the collection guideline, which shows references of the different elements that we want to develop and the typology of the products we’re looking to create.
Rami Makram: We believe that we need to work on consolidating our image and identity in order to properly communicate the story of our brand. Therefore, we are trying to make sure that all the different aspects of the brand are in sync, starting from the corporate identity and visual language to the collection and communication style. I guess we believe that we need to unify our overall design language and identity to have a strong brand image. Hopefully, we are on the right track!
KM: How do you feel about the institutions that teach design in the Arab region? Do they prepare the students with proper training? Do you feel that the programmes are encouraging to students or must they seek education abroad?
Karim Mekhtigian: The creative industry in our region doesn’t really have a well-established academic system, we don’t have specialised institutions when it comes to design and this is a catastrophe. If we look at current design professionals, we will notice that most of them studied abroad. I really believe that there should be other solutions; I think we should have our own system and model for design education.
KM: Tell us about the Egyptian Designers Forum and why an Egyptian design community is necessary.
Karim Mekhtigian: The Egyptian Designers Forum (EDF) is a non-profit organisation created by a group of leading designers to build a strong relationship between designers and the local furniture industry as well as promote the Egyptian design industry. During the course of the past 6-7 years, we notice how the industry has started to evolve through the introduction of different initiatives that focus on developing local skills and aim to brand Egypt internationally.
KM: How would you approach encouraging interest in design in the city? What is important about it for you?
Karim Mekhtigian: I think people want designers to work on shaping and materialising their needs according to their expectations. For example, at the moment, people in Egypt need dignity, freedom and democracy, so I believe that it’s our role as designers to materialise this. If we fail to achieve this, then our job is not important anymore.
For more information:
&CAIRO- Press Office
Ghada Ibrahim, firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in Kalimat, Issue 03, Fall 2011