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Wednesday, 16 October 2019

In with the old: Furniture collector Hossam Elouan sheds light on his passion

Film producer Hossam Elouan has spent decades collecting treasured items of antique furniture scouted from Egypt's markets

Dina Ezzat , Friday 26 Jul 2019
photo by Sherif Sonbol
photos by :Sherif Sonbol
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For the last month, film producer Hassan Elouan had been meeting with carpet mender Kassem to go through the repair of three old and heavily used Iranian carpets that Elouan had bought from Mohamed, another carpet mender who was selling them on behalf of a family that decided to buy new rugs for a new house.

Elouan is satisfied with the outcome of the mending work. “The colours are perfect and the texture matches exactly,” Elouan announces, to the pleasure of Kassem.

Kassem has worked on the three rugs full time for close to four months. He is the craftsman that Elouan, a devotee of antique furniture and furnishings, goes to for work on Iranian rugs.

“I learned through experience that the skill of one artisan is always different from that of another; sometimes a clever artisan can fix a piece when another could not, and sometimes it takes the joint work of two or even three artisans,” Elouan said.

At the end of the day, Elouan has three elegantly mended Iranian rugs. He is planning to keep one for himself and give two to friends who wish to ornament their houses with old pieces, if they decide they liked them. If not, then he will keep them both for himself.

“Maybe later I will sell two other old rugs that I have and put these out instead; or maybe I will put them in the cupboard along with other old and mended pieces that I simply could not resist buying,” Elouan said.

“This is one of the things about developing this passion to collect old pieces -- I see the piece and I just cannot resist having it. Sometimes it is in good shape and at other times it needs extensive repair. Sometimes I am lucking with the repair journey and other times I am not,” Elouan said.

Elouan’s home is testimony to his passion for objects with a sense of history. The décor is, he believes, 95 percent made up of old and repaired items: a French dining table, English-style living room couches, Ottoman coffee tables and Iranian and Turkish rugs and copper lamps.

“I had been collecting for years, out of passion but previously also out of limited financial means,” Elouan said as he placed teacups on a copper tray is around a hundred years old.

photo by Sherif Sonbol
photos by :Sherif Sonbol

It was in the 1980s that Elouan came to live in Cairo. A young university graduate who was trying to find his way in world of cinema, especially in independent cinema, Elouan found himself on a very limited budget.

Out of need and out of interest, Elouan started long and repeated walks in the markets of old furniture and old rugs to furnish the modest apartments he lived in during that period, mainly Souq ElImam and Souq ElTonssi in Old Cairo and Eizet Belal in El-Sharabiya, west of Cairo.

In the beginning he would find pieces that would do -- a simple bed or a simple sofa that would not cost more than EGP 100.

At times, out of financial constraints, he would have to resell of one of these items to bring in desperately needed cash. When he got enough cash, he would buy a replacement.

Eventually, Elouan had enough money to buy his own apartment in a nice Cairo neighbourhood, and another in Alexandria. But he returned to the markets of ElImam and Al-Atarine to furnish these apartments.

At that point, however, Elouan was not looking for just any old furnishings, but rather for “really interesting items.” He had developed a passion in particular for Iranian carpets and French chairs.

He had also found an enthusiasm for old photographs, and his study’s walls bear the result: they are ornamented with black and white portraits of men and women, young and old, who he has never met.

“I just found the photos, often in their frames, and I could not resist the look in their eyes, so I brought them home and used them as artwork – just like I would do with paintings,” he said.

On the opposite wall of the same study are bookshelves that Elouan bought at Souk ElImam, and which are packed with interior design magazines and endless volumes of books on the history of furniture and rugs.

“I would argue that it is very difficult for anyone to know for fact if his money is fully worth it, if one does not have the knowledge,” Elouan argues.

Today, Elouan knows if an American desk that is for sale in one of the old markets is really worth a few thousand pounds, even if he may have to spend a few more thousand to restore it to good condition.

“The trick is usually about knowing that even if a piece looks humble and damaged, it is still worthwhile to buy it and go on to fix it,” he said.

Elouan has used this knowledge to help family and friends furnish their apartments “almost all from the markets of old items.”

He thought for a while about shifting careers, or creating a parallel career in which he used his expertise to help people to create beautiful homes “without having to spend an atrocious amount of money.”

He chose not to he says, firstly because “it is becoming harder and harder to find the exquisite pieces.”

Elouan knows that the main part of these pieces essentially came to the markets in the 1950s and 1960s, with the exodus of foreign families, and of some Egyptians, after nationalization. In the following decades, more items came to the markets as families chose to immigrate, or as those men and women who got married and established houses from the 1920s to the 1940s passed away and their children sold off their things.

“These items have certainly gone through the rounds of changing owners again and again, and whatever is left for offer is not that much,” he said.

Elouan says that the merchants who used to buy and import older pieces from the used furniture markets of southern European countries “have completely halted this business, as it has become incredibly expensive to do with the devaluation of the pound and the increase in taxes,” he said.

The alternative for those who wish to go for old-style furniture without having to spend exorbitant amounts at expensive furniture stores, Elouan argued, is “to go to the remaining skilful artisans and to ask them to copy the pieces of interest from pictures or catalogues.”

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(photo courtesy of Hassan Elouan)

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(photo courtesy of Hassan Elouan)

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