By Julian Nabil
With core services in architecture, interior and product design, and branding place, Alchemy is an innovative design firm with unique designs, some of which were featured in this Ramadan’s series La Totfea’ Al Shams (Don’t Let The Sun Go Down), narrating different stories of life. Aiming to know where Egypt’s design industry currently stands, Invest-Gate sits with Alchemy Design Studio Founder Karim Mekhtigian to introduce a new style of contemporary design, following his multi-cultural 15 years of Parisian experience. Mekhtigian shares with Invest-Gate his views on the industry’s current and future status.
Given your Armenian origin, being brought up in Cairo, and have studied Interior Design and Scenography in Paris, how did this blend of different cultures affect your designs?
Any designer is affected and inspired by all life changes since birth. The surrounding nature you get exposed to and experiences you gain throughout your life affect your work in a way or another.
There is no clear-cut definition that totally describes an Egyptian’s identity. We are a multi-layered society… a blend of different nationalities from ancient time. Merging and integrating cultural backgrounds, whether Italian, French, Islamic, or Coptic, into one single person is an underlying characteristic of all that is Egyptian. The problem arises only when trying to be “just” an Arab, “just” an Egyptian, or “just” an Armenian – we are used to be everything without distinction.
You established a design studio “Dessilk” in Paris after finishing your studies, so what made you decide to return to Cairo?
I stayed in France to learn and gain experience but my intention was always to move back to my home country to implement what I gained throughout the years. I, actually, stayed in Paris for five years and returned to Egypt for a while. Then, I went back to Paris but this time around it took me another ten years to come back. Since I left to study, I was determined to come back and work here.
There is a huge difference between the work environment in Egypt and Paris in terms of work ethics and norms. Hence, I was left in a bit of a struggle. In France as is the case across Europe, you have to abide by the structure and system. In Paris, it is not about competition more than possibilities; either you can make it or not. If you function inside the system, you will be able to make it through.
Your profession is locked by rules, laws, and formalities, leaving no room for creativity. I feel…
Egypt, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Everything here is haphazard as there is no system or infrastructure. The choice at the beginning to stay in France or come back to Egypt was very challenging.
What are the challenges you faced most when you started your business in Egypt?
The main challenge was how to work and perform to a certain quality. I had a lot of problems to find good craftsmen. In addition, I had to bring people from abroad to train designers and technicians here to form a team of craftsmen, who can deliver a certain level of an Alchemy output.
What make the Alchemy designs stand out among the rest here in Egypt? What is your mark on the architecture and interior design industry?
One thing for sure, is that I try to capture the real essence of any product or space I work in, putting into consideration the different identities of clients and the individuality of the place. In other words, I study my client well. I think about layers, stories, and the memories they want in place and add to it our mix of cultures that identifies any Egyptian… I do not know what exactly differentiates me from the rest of my colleagues but this is my methodology when designing.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I have an experience in transforming anything to anything and this is the nicest thing in our job. The poetic part in the profession is how to transpose and transform a tree to a bird and then to something else, and this is what I enjoy the most.
The most difficult part about the transformation of garage to a livable space was how to open it and bring light inside.
You blend the classic with modern trends in your designs; how do you do this?
I am a contemporary designer and I do not belong to a certain style or trend. If you stick to a specific trend, you will run out of ideas one day. Fashion has nothing to do with our profession because we should do things that are timeless to last. In my work, I provide the elements of evolution in the spaces I design, making way for my clients to develop their own lifestyle.
When I design, I look back into history, foresee the future to my product, but remain in the “Now” when working. It is important to have the collective memory of people in the future project.This exercise helps me create because understanding how you work today helps one to envision what could probably happen. This is the “Alchemy” of how I assemble things together to explore something new.
You acted as an art director for different initiatives to promote the local design industry with the Egyptian Furniture Export Council (EFEC), tell us more about it?
From 2006 to 2010, former Foreign Trade and Industry Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid had established such initiative, allowing Egyptian designers to showcase their work and place Egypt on the map of architecture and design.
We held workshops and exhibitions in Paris and Milan with the aim of rebranding the image of Egypt’s design industry. The general mood during this period was very encouraging, and the country was doing very well at that time.
What are the common things clients ask for when designing their homes? Do they care more about quality or budget?
Every client has his own vision and image for a certain sought-after lifestyle. Everyone comes here asking for the highest quality; however, they remain extremely cautious about the budget. The Alchemy brand does not cater those who only want to get the job done. Clients do not usually need another home to live in but they need another way of living and this is what we always try to introduce in our projects. It is not about decoration, colors, and styling for us. Alchemy is more about offering a special way of life.
How do summer homes designs differ from those of primary ones?
The needs for both are different. A summer home is more social, free, and independent. It is a place, where you want to spend your leisure time and feel the vacation spirit with all its tranquility, calmness, and comfort. On the other hand, your primary home is about your everyday life, reflecting your personality and your story… where you are coming from and where you are heading. Your primary home is a micro system of your entity but a summer home is part of this whole system and it reflects small part of it.
For summer home, you need a shade and a nice open view in front of the sea; so we try to maximize and naturalize the outdoor. But a home in the city is usually a part of a building so you have many angles and aspects to be taken into consideration. A primary home is a container of many things to consider, including work, dedication, family, and friends.
How did the EGP floatation affect the industry in terms of costs and final prices? Did it have an impact on demand?
Prices have gone over the top. I have projects that were signed one or two years ago, so how I can bear the product’s cost if prices are now 60-70% higher. Someone should explain what is happening and where we are going [economically], and if it is a transitional, permanent, or temporary phase. Such economic measures and reforms are probably long-overdue but they should have been taken in steps.
Some people say that cost of living in Egypt is cheaper than abroad but we are not earning in a foreign currency. Prices hiked but no income jumped by 60%; so how can I raise 50 people’s wages in my company by this percentage?!
However, the EGP floatation did not surprisingly affect the demand and my clients are continuing with the same pace. But you cannot take me as an example as I represent only 1-2% of the whole population.
Do you think that the EGP devaluation will encourage local manufacturing? Do you always use imported materials or locally manufactured ones?
I hope that this EGP float will encourage local manufacturing but encouragement should come from a government that has a clear vision. We are talking about ten years of implementation if they start now. I am not a freak about imported materials. I always resort to local options first. My aim was to produce in Egypt but I, apparently, need 200 years.
How do you see the future of design and architecture post float?
I am a little bit worried but I have always to be optimistic. Independence and creativity need an open space and mentality. We have a lot of talented designers that the industry cannot make use of and are not given the chance to create so their talents are being killed. They should be put on the right platform and given enough space to excel.
What advice do you give young designers and architects, today?
Young designers and architects should work very hard, and be independent and committed. A lot of creative designers come to this world but how they grow and stimulate their talents is up to them… and this makes all the difference.
What are your latest projects?
Analogue, which is an Egyptian brand of everyday products that are sometimes high-end and very basic. It is a brand that reflects the simplistic nature of Egyptian craftsmanship, giving form to products influencing people’s daily lives.