Foto: KADK

New furniture designs weave cultures together

The Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Initiative has launched a design dialogue with the question: ‘What happens when you combine Scandinavian minimalism, Pharaonic subtleties and traditional Egyptian craftsmanship?’

Not being able to understand each other’s words is difficult. But the communication challenges can be even greater if you do not speak the same design language. Words can always be translated by an interpreter. Translating the language of design, however, poses entirely different kinds of challenges. One pair of eyes sees a wooden framed chair that should be covered with a piece of cloth. Another pair of eyes sees the same wooden frame as a beautiful element in itself, the core of an elegant piece of furniture.

It is our ambition to disseminate the knowledge of the rich, but often overlooked, craft tradition found in Egypt, while at the same time spreading knowledge of the Danish furniture –making tradition.”

Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen
Former coordinator, Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Initiative

Many Egyptians find the Scandinavian minimalist style of Danish design to be like food without salt. On the other hand, many Danish designers find Egyptian furniture heavy and bulky. In heavy furniture is viewed as a sign of wealth. In Danish it means only  ’difficult to move.’

The Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Initiative in Cairo was a test of cultural bridge-building. The challenge for this new project was to create a fruitful design dialogue.

The dialogue project brought together Danish students from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK)  with Egyptian designers and furniture manufacturers. The purpose was to explore whether they could find some common ground in the field of design.

In November 2018, the Danish students visited manufacturers, museums and universities. They also participated in workshops about local craftsmanship in order to obtain inspiration for new designs and concepts.

The ambition was to develop new prototypes and production methods that could retain the Egyptian craft tradition while still appealing to the European eyes.

‘Our ambition with the project is to give the students inspiration for their future work and to communicate the rich, but often over looked, craft tradition found in Egypt, whilst we spread knowledge of the Danish furniture tradition,’ explained Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen, former coordinator for Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Initiative.

‘In addition to this, we hoped that the cooperation would lead to the development of new techniques that can be used by the manufacturers in the future, and the design of furniture that is sellable in both Egypt and Denmark.’

In reality, it was a meeting of three cultures. In the Egyptian museums, the pharaonic furniture design, with its soft curves and detailed ornaments, has its very own unique expression.

One day was spent teaching textiles – the special Egyptian embroidery form, telli, amongst others. In this technic you embroid with metal thread (originally silver thread). Photo: Per Henriksen.

Ironically the Danish designers found much inspiration for minimalism in ancient Egyptian furniture, while contemporary Egyptian design has its roots in the 18th and 19th century European Louis Seize style. The exchange of ideas is thus far from new.

We want to reach beyond tradition

The Danish students returned to Copenhagen to convert the Egyptian tradition into new furniture designs. After finishing their sketches, they sent them to a furniture manufacturer in Egypt who began production. In January 2019, the students returned to Egypt to review the final details with the manufacturer. The finished furniture was put on display at a gallery in Cairo. Subsequently, several of the students have remained in contact with the Egyptian manufacturers, and two of the pieces are being put into production. One is a chair to be marketed in Egypt. The other piece is a stool that will be produced in Egypt and sold in Denmark.

The design cross-fertilisation potential goes both ways. Ikea furniture has become very popular with Egyptian young people, and this has generated a growing interest in Scandinavian design. At the same time, there may also be a market in Europe for Egyptian furniture using traditional crafts and sustainable materials.

Using palm ribs in furniture production requires a particular technique. Here one of the Danish students gets an introduction to the palm rib technique. Photo: Per Henriksen.

‘I hope this will lead to a more permanent cooperation,’ says Ahmed Bedair. Bedair is an Egyptian designer and manufacturer who makes furniture and other products out of palm ribs, the strong stems of the palm leaves.

‘We try to support and develop the local crafts. We want to reach beyond our own traditions so that they can be sold on the European market. This is why it is such an extraordinary opportunity for us to be working with Danish designers,’ he says.

The new furniture is a visible result of the project. But for Danish students, it is about much more than that, as teacher Grethe Weber explains.

‘What matters is not whether the experiments succeeded perfectly. The most important thing is the process and the reflections that it initiates. For example, the project gives students an idea of what it takes to get their products into other markets and how to communicate their ideas to people elsewhere in the world. This has become absolutely crucial in a globalised world,’ she says.

Below are some of the furniture pieces that was produced during the Danish-Egyptian design collaboration: