Having a fascination for architecture herself, eniGma’s Shadden El Banna, was excited to get the chance to meet the young dream team behind Design Point Egypt, Karim El Hayawan and Nehal Leheta. The pair is known to have a distinctive design style, effortlessly mixing art with architecture.
Upon my arrival for our interview, I could feel an energetic youthful vibe enveloping Design Point’s office. I was greeted warmly by the architect, Karim El Hayawan, dressed in ripped jeans and a plain white shirt. His desk was covered with a pile of papers and architecture books, yet paradoxically, it was chaotically neat. With a soft knock on the door, Nehal Leheta, the artistic half of the pair, appeared from behind the door with a mane of beautiful hair and a welcoming smile. The chemistry between the two collaborators was very apparent, peeking my interest to find out how their friendship developed into this successful partnership.
El Hayawan earned his degree in architecture in 2000 from the Faculty of Engineering while Leheta studied art and Islamic architecture at the American University in Cairo. He was her mentor in her architectural journey when she was in college. Before joining together as a team, Leheta worked with a French company where she specialized in hotel interior design while El Hayawan worked in Dar El Handasah, the well-known consulting firm. While working with their respective companies they collaborated on a project, which was a great success. That led to more successful collaborations, ranging from residential to commercial projects, such as Crave restaurants, and even on TV programs and commercials.
With their string of successful collaborations, they began to seriously consider leaving their jobs to set up their own company. According to them, taking that step was both terrifying and challenging. Leaving behind secure jobs in leading companies in their fields seemed crazy, especially to their parents. But they took the risk and started Design Point Egypt in 2003 in a tiny studio apartment.
To Leheta and El Hayawan, being a great team means not competing with one another. One team member’s success means success for the other member too. They complete one another. El Hayawan is the architectural guru, and Leheta is great with art and colours. Their different strengths are what makes them a great team.
Leheta and El Hayawan find that one of the biggest challenges they face in their job is that clients often don’t know what they want, or they mistake the style they want for another style. Another challenge is when clients are on a limited budget and want to do things that are way over budget. But these things, challenging as they are, are also intriguing to them as designers since once they succeed in overcoming them, they add to their sense of accomplishment as designers.
El Hayawan and Leheta do not believe in following trends, which can change quickly. They go for more lasting style rather than for what’s trendy at a given moment. They like to introduce a little bit of vintage or classical elements and always add art to the mix. “Surprisingly, people actually recognize our designs as soon as they see them, but we do not have a signature style. We are just ourselves; there is no secret recipe,” says El Hayawan.
In their view, for a design to be successful it should reflect the character of the owner along with the designer’s twist and style. The challenge for the designer is to be careful not to have his own identity override the client’s character.
“I think the way we tailor the designs specifically for the client is what sets us apart from other architects and designers,” says El Hayawan. “You will never find two of our homes with the same elements, because we design according to each owner’s character. We deal with our designs like music. Sometimes you want to listen to jazz, other times you want to listen to rock and so on. There is no specific frame that you can put us in. When we meet our clients, the first phase of our job is to develop an understanding of their personality, and then we start designing.”
“When it comes to commercial projects,” he adds, “ we have the edge of dealing with it with the same level of detail, care, and attention that we give to our residential projects. We provide our clients with a level of service that they don’t usually get from other commercial designers. No matter how rigid or bland the specifications may be, we try and tailor our design as well. This might be a little more costly and time consuming, but the client is always satisfied.”
So what advice would Leheta and El Hayawan give to budding architects and designers?
“Work hard, and not just from 9:00 to 5:00. And research all the way,” they both responded almost in unison. “And when you outsource, always choose people who are very quality oriented. That’s what makes a strong team. This will either make or break you. A very big chunk of our time goes to developing and redeveloping our team. Set high criteria, and set up advanced methods of interviews and assessments. While this may cost you more in the first few years, once you do it, the sky is the limit from there.”