In the challenging environment surrounding us today, it is refreshing to come across an inspiring personality like architect/designer Karim Mekhtigian, who projects a sense of optimism with everything he does. While, you can’t help but feel a sense of wonder at the elegant, contemporary homes he designs, it’s more his sense of purpose to revive Egypt’s culture, or its brand as he calls it, which is so fascinating and inspiring. eniGma’s Chairman, Samia Farid Shihata sat down with the quiet spoken Mekhtigian to find out more about his passion, and his mission, to rebrand Egypt. Here is his story.
Alchemy’s Karim Mekhtigian, the successful architect/designer whose name keeps popping up in exciting projects in Cairo and beyond, works out of his garage. Well, technically, it’s what used to be his garage, before he magically transformed it into this amazingly beautiful, sleek, modern, office with its own stunning plant-filled terrace. The moment you step into Mekhtigian’s office you feel you’ve been transported to a different world, a world you see in high-end architecture and design publications, and in cities like New York or Los Angeles.
Mekhtigian studied architecture, interior design and scenography in Paris, where he subsequently worked for ten years. He worked for companies in France for a while, before starting his own interior design company, which he named Dessil, (meaning vision in Armenian) after his daughter. He focused more on product design during that period, and successfully distributed his products to places like Japan and beyond. When an interior design project brought him back to Egypt, he decided to stay and work here.
Back, in Egypt, he briefly thought he might try his hand at theater set and design, which was part of his course of study in Paris. He had always been interested in movies since he was a child hanging out on cinema sets with his uncle who owned Masr Film, a production company famous for Egyptian hits, like Khalli Balak Men Zouzou, the beloved, Soad Hosny film. However, realising he wouldn’t be able to earn a living doing that, he decided to focus instead on interior design and architecture, where the pay was much better.
Mekhtigian set up Alchemy, his interior design office in Cairo in 1998. In 2003, he opened his first showroom and was joined by his first partner, Mohamed Fares. The following years, until 2011, when the revolution erupted in Tahrir square, his business flourished and Alchemy became one of the most sought after interior design companies in Egypt, with three showrooms in Cairo and one in Bahrain. After 2011 and the economic difficulties that ensued, Alchemy closed all its showrooms and focused more on architecture and commercial projects.
“Interior design and houses used to be our day to day bread and butter,” Mekhtigian explains. “Today, our main thing is architecture and commercial projects, like restaurants, bars, and hospitality. We do branding, strategy, and design for all our commercial projects. This includes conceptualising their logo, communication strategy, and visual identity.” Alchemy also opened a new architecture office, and became heavily involved in the design of major compounds like Seashell and La Playa on the North coast, and other developments in Cairo.
Yet despite his ongoing success as an architect, Mekhtigian’s real passion lies elsewhere. “My main concern now is really ‘the phenomenon of Egypt’, rebranding Egypt in a variety of aspects,” he says. One such aspect is the restoration and revival of Khedival downtown Cairo. “The challenge is how to reincarnate what we used to have downtown, but in a contemporary way, for people today. We want the restored buildings to be functional again. After conducting careful research, we come up with a scenario for the restoration of each building and decide how best it should be used, for example, for offices, a boutique hotel, or a restaurant, etc. Doing things like this, more than designing a private house, is what we like to focus on at Alchemy today. This is what we are excited about.”
Another aspect of what Mekhtigian calls the ‘phenomenon of Egypt’, involves the rebranding of Egyptian companies to bring them up to international level. “We need to have our own culture and our own way of doing things,” he explains. Until 2011, as consultant to the Egyptian Industrial Modernisation Center, Mekhtigian was actively involved in this rebranding. “When former Minister of Industry, Rachid Ahmed Rachid was in charge, we had a plan and we all worked hard to implement it. We created the Egyptian Designer’s Forum and did extensive research on identity and products. I was responsible for exhibitions abroad in places like Milano and Paris. We brought Egypt to Milano. When you walked around there you would see so many billboards saying, Egypt. All that stopped with the revolution,” he recalls, with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
Mekhtigian has recently taken his own step to promote Egyptian products by starting Analogue, his own new brand of high quality handmade products crafted in Egypt. His products are high-end, slick, and contemporary, and are very well suited for sophisticated markets abroad, which is where he is marketing them.
As noted earlier, Mekhtigian is very passionate about the restoration work Alchemy is doing in Cairo’s downtown at the behest of the Ismailia company charged with preservation in that area. He insists that his work is not just restoring specific buildings. “We exceed the normal expectations of our client, the Ismailia company, and give them a complete program that includes a repositioning strategy on how things should be done in the long run to bring back downtown as it used to be, on a level that can be functional and culturally alive. It’s not just cleaning the buildings, and painting them; it involves what to do about the passages around the buildings, the neighbourhood, the community, and how it’s going to be managed. It involves preserving the community and keeping the social fabric of what downtown is today. Of course, this must be done in a way that avoids killing the very spirit you are trying to revive, a way that actually brings that spirit out again. Raising the consciousness of the community is a big part of it.”
“We are in the process of finishing one building for Ismailia,” Mekhtigian continues,“ and by luck we are also restoring, Groppi, the iconic downtown ‘tea salon’, for its owners. Groppi is an example of the complex challenge we face in restoration. The design of the space and bringing it back to its former physical glory is not what is difficult, since we have the history and the documents to guide us. The problem is how to bring back the people and the food that Groppi was known for, with all the right ingredients. Because that is what made Groppi what it was. The challenge is how to bring back their famous delicacies like, ‘trois petit cochons,’ ‘marquise au chocolat’, and their ‘fruits glacés’, etc. To bring the service and the food back with the same quality, we need to change the culture inside the kitchen. That’s the real challenge. We are going into every single detail as much as they allow us.”
Mekhtigian explains that the challenges they face in their work downtown tell the story of the whole of Egypt. “A building is a micro example of the bigger picture of the whole country facing the same challenges, albeit on a wider scale. We will never have a future without understanding and preserving what we used to have. We don’t have any other solution but to restore the old, and to create the new that will function with the old.” he explains.
Mekhtigian points to examples of other cities, like Istanbul, which faced the same problems we have. Through the collaboration between the government and creative professionals, they managed to turn Istanbul around to the beautiful city it is today. He is determined that this can be done in Cairo too.
“But cities and countries don’t change through the work of just one or two design offices,” he continues. “ There must be an architectural vision for the whole country, and we must have policies to implement that vision. The vision should say, this is where we are, and this is where we want to reach, and this is how we are going to get there. The vision must be shared collectively and the media should be communicating it. Of course, you need institutions to do that, and we hope we can have them soon. In the meantime, as architects we are being pro active, doing what we are supposed to do and what we believe in.”
Looking ahead, Mekhtigian says there are no strict limits to what he sees himself doing professionally. “It could be product design, interiors, or architecture,” he says. “I may even do a film tomorrow! If you have a story you want to share and if you want to change things, you do whatever it takes,” he exclaims.
“The least we do is design now,” Mekhtigian continues. “It’s all about the experience. In our projects we are successful because we don’t only focus on the design. We focus on the experience of the space. What do we want people to feel inside this space? Whether it’s a house, a bar, a restaurant, our concern is with what you’re going to experience, how you’re going to feel inside this space. To reach this, to know how to do this, is the real challenge.”