Karim Mekhtigian, the founder and CEO of the prestigious Alchemy Design Studio, stands out among Egypt’s leading designers. His exceptional ability to blend past, present and future in the creative world and his continuous exploration of new avenues to embed elements of local culture into contemporary designs, has helped transform the Egyptian design landscape. In a constant dynamic quest to connect the East and the West, the old and the new, he revels in juxtaposing opposites just to show that they are, in fact, one. To him design is a game of balance, adjustment and precision.
Mekhtigian studied architecture and design in Paris where he went on to set up his first design studio, and started his first product design line called Dessilk, named after his daughter. In 1998, he moved back to Cairo where he started his now famous design house, Alchemy, in a small office in down-town Cairo. Acquiring and developing more projects with his new partner Mohamad Fares, they opened their first showroom in Maadi in 2003.
Alchemy quickly became the go-to destination for modern, cutting-edge design in Egypt and the region, as it opened another two showrooms in Cairo and one in Bahrain. In the meantime, as Mekhtigian’s interests and influence extended to the broader creative design scene, he was instrumental in setting up the Egyptian Designers Forum to encourage and help designers show their work and to educate the public about design. He also worked on repositioning Egypt’s creative industries on the international map, organising workshops for Egyptians designers and presenting Egypt’s design industry in Milan and Paris.
When Mekhtigian was first interviewed by eniGma in December 2017, Egypt’s economy had begun to recover from the slowdown that began in 2011 and his optimism for the future was palpable. He had weathered the turbulence of 2011, which he saw as a time for change and an opportunity to learn and to unlearn. In the end, Alchemy emerged stronger, and experienced a rebirth that brought it a new flair. Alchemy Life Lab, was launched to great success, providing consulting and rebranding services to iconic Egyptian brands, furniture designers and others. Mekhtigian also launched a series of new companies, Analogue, M’OR, and Alchemy Architecture, dedicated to reviving the Egyptian design industry and giving it a modern code.
Yet, what Mekhtigian was most excited about at that time, was his role in the ongoing revitalisation of Cairo’s Khedival downtown, which he felt strongly about and had always dreamt to be a part of. Listening to him speak passionately about his renovation of the iconic La Viennoise building and his detailed plans for the renovation of Groppi, the landmark tea house in Talaat Harb Square, you couldn’t help but share his excitement and feel that downtown Cairo was on the cusp of making the comeback Egyptians were hoping for.
Today, La Viennoise has been fully renovated and houses the beautiful headquarters of a successful Egyptian company. Mekhtigian is proud of the finished building which he worked on with so much care; yet he is not fully satisfied, because the revitalisation of the surrounding area included in his original plan, has yet to be implemented. “This seems to be a pattern in our country. We tend to take small parts from here and there, rather than implement plans in their totality,” he explains, with a tinge of disappointment in his voice.
Completing the restoration and revival of Cairo’s Khedival downtown is still very much on Mekhtigian’s mind today. Indeed, the beautiful buildings that have undergone renovation are a testament to his efforts and those of others who share his vision to bring back a vibrant downtown Cairo. Mekhtigian would be the first to note, however, that returning downtown to its glory needs more than refurbishing buildings. He stresses that managing neighbourhoods and communities in a way that brings out the spirit you are trying to revive, is key. “It has to include preserving the community and keeping the social fabric of what downtown is today. Raising the consciousness of the community is a big part of the effort,” he insists.
Not surprisingly, Mekhtigian is anxiously awaiting the move by government ministries to the new administrative capital in 2020, which means that many historic buildings in downtown Cairo will be vacated. He sees this as a golden opportunity to preserve this trove of unique architectural heritage. As part of his efforts in that regard, Mekhtigian helped found ‘Cairo 18,’ an independent initiative started by Al Ahram’s El Beit magazine that includes designers, artists, intellectuals and businessmen, who share the same vision. Cairo 18 describes their purpose as, “restoring the aesthetic legacy of their city, Cairo, by recreating the layers of its rich and opulent history,” and they conduct a variety of activities, including media campaigns, to promote their objective.
“We will never have a future without understanding and preserving the past,” insists Mekhtigian as he expresses his frustration that the demolition of architectural treasures is still going on. He notes that, sadly, two architecturally unique buildings were totally demolished in the midst of Cairo 18’s media campaign to save them. The buildings were in the strategically located Maspero Triangle whose inhabitants have been evacuated to make way for a plan for urban renewal prepared and being implemented by a British firm. Mekhtigian and Cairo 18 are persevering in their mission to prevent any further loss in Egypt’s architectural heritage.
On another front, it is no surprise that Mekhtigian has his reservations about the proliferation of new gated compounds around Cairo, which he finds are artificial in many ways. Even though Alchemy is implementing several such projects, “because they are our bread and butter,” as he says, he is always looking out for visionary developers willing to try new ideas and to adopt a ‘more human approach’ to the new communities they build. According to him, rather than these gated compounds, developers should be creating communities that are open and ‘normal,’ catering to people from all walks of life and reflecting the rich variety in our society. Recognising the general reluctance of real estate developers to try something different, he exclaims, “We are seriously thinking of doing a mini project on our own, to show how things can be done in a better way.”
In conclusion, Mekhtigian cautions that individual efforts here and there, whether in historic preservation or in urban development, will not be effective unless they form part of a broad national consensus and vision. “Unless we have a collectively shared architectural vision for the whole country and implement policies to realise that vision, we will not succeed in turning our cities into the beautiful livable habitats we want them to be. The vision should say, this is where we are, this is where we want to reach, and this is how we are going to get there,” he observes, adding, “While things are slowly changing, we need to move faster in this direction.”