His creativity knows no bounds and his charisma has no limits. Mohamed Hafez, the irrepressible artist behind leading furniture and design company Dimensione, has spent the last few decades on a one-man mission to revolutionise Egypt’s interiors industry. His goal is to create world-class furniture for the region’s most discerning clients. Enigma’s Annelle Sheline finds out just how he’s done it…
Dressed in a cool white linen shirt, Mohamed Hafez is sitting behind the expansive dark wooden desk of his dazzling Mohandessin office… or as he likes to call it, his “design kitchen”. Surrounded by mood boards, demos of tiles, woods, fabrics, images and colours, this is the throne from where this eccentric and charismatic Egyptian architect and design aficionado conjures up breathtaking interiors and fabulous furniture creations that rival the likes of Armani Casa and Missoni Home. The bounty of books behind him – ranging from volumes on Spanish designer Ricardo Le Goreta to California Homes – would not be out of place in one of the world’s major design school libraries. James Blunt, Madonna and classics such as Cupid Draw Back Your Bow seep through surround-sound speakers. And just beyond his office, a creative team of 20 of Egypt’s most talented young people work diligently to execute his ideas.
A pen never leaves his hands. As he speaks, Hafez sketches on the sheets of paper that surround him. He illustrates global export patterns by drawing an abstract map of the world out of dramatic lines and gigantic ovals. He seems to pull ideas straight from his mind to his hands, and only then to his voice. Ever since childhood, Hafez has most easily expressed himself on paper; he calls the pen his “first best friend”. These days the CEO of design company Dimensione goes through one of his favourite ball-point Pilot pens daily, but 50-odd years ago he was just a quirky kid with the unfortunate habit of drawing on furniture.
Like many young protégés, he didn’t understand the scope of his own talent. His father wanted him to become a civil engineer, despite Hafez’s prohibitively low GPA. Luckily destiny intervened in the form of an artistic neighbour, whose oil paintings and sketches captivated the young boy. Hafez would spend hours watching his neighbour work, and soon understood that this was his calling. However when Hafez informed his father of his desire to join an art school rather than a traditional university, his father was reluctant, insisting he take formal art lessons from his neighbour first. After all, there was no point in allowing the boy to chase a pipe dream unless he was sure he would pass the requisite entrance exam. Those lessons, however, would prove unnecessary. When the neighbour asked Hafez to sketch some scenes from traditional Egyptian street life, the resulting detailed depictions impressed the man so much, he insisted there was nothing he could teach him.
Sure enough, Hafez entered the art faculty’s décor department and flourished. His creativity seemed endless, overflowing into six projects – of various styles – for each class rather than the requisite one. “While the other kids would use their vacations to go to the beach, I would continue to study; often wandering through Islamic Cairo, soaking up its beauty,” he recalls. When computers arrived on the artistic scene, many of his teachers and classmates stuck their heads in the sand, hoping the craze for the new device would fade. Hafez, on the other hand, located an office in England that could train him to use these newfangled tools to execute his designs (he ultimately got his Masters in computer assisted design). With this unique talent under his belt, he began to work for architectural firms. He quickly made a name for himself with his perspectives and eventually transitioned from ‘artist’ to ‘architect’.
Yet Hafez quickly noticed that much of what he’d been taught did not correspond with the work he witnessed being executed in reality. “I realised almost everything I’d studied had been a joke”. Stymied, he decided to seek inspiration in Europe. His training was re-forged in Italy, the repository of world-class design and architecture. Landing himself a placement at an Italian design company, Hafez took pleasure in every detail, from the factory assembly process to the final result. He was particularly impressed with the efficiency, quality and sheer scale of Italian furniture manufacturing. The Italians were equally impressed with him, requesting he become their trade representative in Egypt. So it was then that he imported Egypt’s first container of office furniture. He sold everything in less than a week and was justifiably thrilled… until he realised he’d suffered a huge loss. Ever the artist, he had overlooked the simplest accounting procedures and had entirely mispriced the goods! It’s a telling story which Hafez now laughs at hysterically. However, the fact remained that the demand was huge. So with a little help from a professional accountant, he shipped in a second container and made a killing.
He soon obtained a showroom and began to expand his list of suppliers. Business would have continued to boom… but then destiny stopped smiling. A storage room fire destroyed 500,000 LE worth of merchandise. Hafez went to his Italian suppliers and using his endless charm, convinced them to lend him 200,000 LE of product to recoup his losses. But bad luck struck twice. Not long after, the Egyptian government sought to prop up Egyptian manufacturers by banning all imported furniture. Hafez decided to take the risk of becoming the first Egyptian manufacturer of office furniture.
He wasn’t alone for long though: Mobica opened soon after him. But Hafez has always done well with competition. He upgraded his factory, returned to Italy for inspiration and sought out the highest quality accessories. And soon clients began asking him to design their interiors as well as the furniture. As Hafez readily admits, “The orders I received shaped my future.” Beginning with corporate environments such as banks, Hafez was soon asked to do the Grand Hotel in Sharm El Sheikh – the first five star hotel on the Red Sea. “I have a photographic memory and had seen a lot on all my travels,” he says. “I would catch every detail and store it in my mental ‘library’. I used to go into villages and study the old buildings. It’s the type of perspective you can’t learn from books.” So Hafez gave the Sharm project everything he had (including the unusual choice of a stone interior) and made it a showcase for his work.
Soon Hafez decided he needed to control all aspects and stages of production through his own manufacturing faculties. And to this day, he remains one of the few local designers to do so. But it hasn’t been easy. Manufacturing a world class product without the infrastructural support your international cohorts enjoy can be endlessly frustrating. And local clients make life harder by refusing to pay the same price for a local product – no matter how beautifully designed – as they pay for an international one. “I cannot sell an Egyptian product in Egypt for 40,000 euros – no one will buy it. It is not about the product, it is about where you are. I am in Egypt so unfortunately I have a certain limit that I cannot cross irrespective of the unparalleled quality of my product.”
Thankfully Hafez remains undeterred. Despite the challenges, he is at the very forefront of Egypt’s design field, creating furniture and interiors to rival the world’s best. Celebrity clients flock to his door, the bold and the beautiful demand his designs and the some of the most breath-taking homes, hotels and offices in the country bear the unmistakable mark of this creative genius. Because when it comes to design, his work really is in a different dimension.