Young designers from Egypt and design master’s students from Denmark bring 15 stools to life – drawing inspiration from Danish and Ancient Egyptian design with a sustainable future in mind.
By Rowan El Shimi
By Rowan El Shimi
Working with Egyptian craftsmen at the Pinocchio Furniture Factory in Egypt’s furniture hub in the Mediterranean city of Damietta was very inspiring for Josie Andersen, a design master’s student at the Royal Danish Academy.
“I loved how little electricity they used in this workshop. How many chisels and hand tools, that probably haven’t developed since Ancient Egypt but still work perfectly, they use – I was really inspired by that,” Josie Andersen says. “I think in the western world, we have a tendency to always go for the electric tools and it would be great to go back to Denmark and use more handcraft tools as it brings you closer to the material.”
Josie, along with eighteen students from her course and ten Egyptian young designers, came together in Damietta in the last week of November for five intensive days at Pinocchio to manufacture fifteen stools that they had designed as part of Bilingual Design for Circularity program. In its fifth iteration, the program creates a dialogue between ancient Egyptian and Danish contemporary design giving the opportunity for young designers to come together and create stools that are inspired by these design traditions – with a new component this year to incorporate principles of circular design into their final stools.
This is the second time this year that the young designers come together – after a week in Copenhagen in September where they visited various Danish design showrooms and studios – both working with modern design and incorporating sustainable approaches. They also had a two-day intensive seminar at the Royal Danish Academy where they learned about design for circularity from academics and designers adopting this approach in their work.
“The seminars in Denmark were really eye opening,” says Bassem Ashraf, an architect and furniture designer from Egypt. “The lectures were very informative on the topic of circularity and really inspired us when we came to design our stools.”
And that’s just what they did – in teams of two the designers had two months to submit their designs for stools that they then would manufacture in Damietta at the Pinocchio Furniture Factory with the skilled workers there. Prior to their time in Damietta, they also had time to visit various museums and sites in Cairo to gain a deeper insight into the Ancient Egyptians’ approach to furniture design and their civilization.
“Our stool has a lot of duality,” Josie Andersen describes Silo, the stool she designed along with Karoline Bøttern and Natalia Sączek. “Before coming to Egypt, I knew a little about ancient Egypt but not enough. In the first week we were going to all the museums and sites with this amazing guide who told us a lot of stories and information that I would never find by myself online or in books,” she says.
During their time in Damietta, a group of Egyptian facilitators, who are young designers themselves, were helping the Royal Danish Academy’s design students communicate with the workers. However, some of the time it was up to the designers to communicate themselves. “We would use sign language and hand gestures. It was also useful to learn the words for yes and no in Arabic. We also would use examples to explain what we wanted to do – but they were amazing. As soon as they get the idea, they would be able to do it, it was really impressive,” Nils Peltier, one of the design students says. He co-designed the Dead Stool with fellow student Fredrik Refer.
“Sometimes we would even be able to joke despite not speaking the same language,” Josie Andersen says stressing that these days at the workshop were her favorite part of the whole program.
Nesreen Ezzeldin, one of the participating Egyptian designers, had a special insight into the program. In the past four editions of the project, she was one of the facilitators but this time she was participating as a designer.
“Participating as a designer this year made me realize how much I learned from the last rounds as a facilitator. I was really intimated by how clever the Danish designers I worked with before were. But this time I gained the confidence and applied what I learned in the last rounds to my design process,” she says. Nesreen Ezzeldin designed the stool Mamar with Zhraa Elshafei which is a foldable stool made with minimal material using natural wood and cotton.
For Bassem Ashraf, the cultural exchange and dialogue that took place between the Danish and Egyptian designers was one of the very beneficial elements. “We discussed our designs a lot – sometimes we would have this stool and several people would give their input on how to develop it or approach a certain issue which helped us get the best results at the end,” he says. Bassem Ashraf co-designed two stools with Ahmed Essam: Hamtat and Scrap.
In the five days they had in Damietta, everyone was feeling the time crunch to finish their stools on time – as the project was about to culminate in an exhibition at the Grand Egyptian Museum only a day later.
Around 250 people came to see what the participating designers came up with at the one-day exhibition took place at the Glass Hall of the Grand Egyptian Museum on December 1st.
“The ancient Egyptian civilization was a major source of light and we have so much to learn from them – so to honor them in this program it was very nice to end it here at the Grand Egyptian Museum to honor them and always remember our roots,” Bassem Ashraf says.
The exhibition also featured a panel discussion, organized by the GEM itself, entitled “Learning from the Past to inspire the future: The role of heritage in design and circularity” which brought together Andreas Lund, Teacher at the Royal Danish Academy, Mette Martinsen Master’s student at the Royal Danish Academy, Amr Orensa Founder of Designdustry and Design Manager at Pinocchio, Indji Taher, Founder of GEM’s giftshop THE NOOK, Curator & Artisanal Designer, Co-Founder of MUSEEUM, Specializing in Art Direction for Cultural Retail Spaces and finally Yasmin El Shazly Egyptologist and Deputy Director for Research and Programs at the American Research Center in Egypt.
“I was very impressed with the output,” Yasmin El Shazly says on the panel. “The stools are very well-researched. It’s clear that they looked at a lot of material. The idea of circularity was very important in Ancient Egypt and even the concept of eternity that is about birth, rebirth and regeneration. The Ancient Egyptians constantly reused materials and they designed things to last for eternity and they buried a lot of furniture in their tombs – materials were very valuable so they were not discarding but rather reusing.”
As this year marked the fifth edition of Bilingual Design for Circularity, Amr Orensa reflects on the program on the panel. “We see some of our alumni winning international design awards in furniture design which proves that this project is really making a difference in Egypt among young designers. We really hope this project continues as we are all learning from it – that’s why it’s called bilingual as we are speaking different languages but learning a lot from each other,” Amr Orensa concludes.