In all her 20 years as an interior architect and designer, Mariam Korashi has “perhaps never” been asked to design just two balconies.
“I am not doing the entire house. I was just asked to do a make-over on two balconies in a Cairo house whose residents had decided to do only their two balconies,” Korashi said.
For this renowned architect and designer, a balcony job of this sort might have been too small an assignment to accept under more normal circumstances. However, today, Korashi said, she took it gladly.
It was, Korashi added, the start of a nice working week when she arrived with workers at the house and started to undo the aluminium windows that the family had put up to close off the balcony in the 1980s — part of a trend in many Cairo apartments to put in bamboo chairs with colourful cushions and built-in sofas.
The job was precisely to the liking of the late middle-aged couple who had been confined to their apartment for longer hours than usual because of the precautionary measures people have been advised to take to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
“I guess people were a lot more used to going out, at least for a stroll, but now more and more people have been spending more time at home, and some have clearly been feeling the pressure of the confinement. They are looking for ways to make their stay inside more pleasant, even if it is compulsory,” Korashi said.
According to Omar Kishk, another Cairo architect and designer, undoing balcony windows and bringing nature back inside are among the things that people in Cairo and possibly other cities in Egypt have been opting for as an outcome of the longer hours spent at home.
They have included re-arranging the furniture to create more space in living areas for Zoom meetings, redoing living areas to accommodate activities that go beyond eating pizzas and watching a film to allow for studying and working or playing and reading, and even dividing rooms or bathrooms to create potential isolation zones in case a family member gets infected with the new coronavirus, he commented.
“There has also been an increase in demand for multi-purpose furniture, especially folding tables that could serve as a computer table or a side-table for coffee and snacks, and for a wider variety of lights that are good for reading and writing. People are also looking for small desks and storage cupboards that could fit into the corners of living areas,” Kishk said.
Hoda and Ragheb, a couple in their mid-40 with three children aged 10 to 17, have opted for several new items to create more comfortable areas in the Cairo apartment they have been living in for close to 20 years.
Beanbags that can serve as chairs around the coffee table have been introduced, now that the dining table has evolved into study table for the children, and a desk has found its way under the living room window with a plant on top to serve for Ragheb’s online meetings.
Hoda has also had to create space on her make-up table to suit her laptop, and a mid-century chaise longue with fitted drawers has found a new place, along with a modern lampshade under the couple’s 1980s wedding photograph, in an empty spot between the living and dining rooms.
“We used to go to our offices, and the children used to go to school, before we all used to come home to eat and watch TV while the children would study in their rooms. But now we barely go out of the house, and it is all five of us here in one go for most of the time,” Hoda said.
DOMESTIC NEEDS: “During the past couple of months as more people have been spending more time in their houses, they have tried to make the house a more comfortable place to live in rather than just a chic place to be in the evenings,” Kiskh said.
According to Dalia Laz, founder and director of Design to Go-Esorus, a six-week-old online interior design service that offers free online consultations, the urge to re-do the house to make it more comfortable to be in for all the family is far from something that only people with large disposable incomes opt for.
Laz said that requests for consultations had come from people who had flexible budgets and also from people who had much more limited ones.
“We are not necessarily talking about major makeovers or large purchases. We are often talking about do-it-yourself pieces and even recycled materials,” she said.
“When we get queries and requests for advice, we pass them on to our designers and get them to go online in live sessions to explain potential smart solutions to such questions,” Laz said.
In so doing, the company can benefit all those who get to see the live sessions and pick up ideas that might help them make their houses more comfortable to live in. If someone then decides they want to use the professional help of the designer, they can contact them through the online forum.
The idea, Laz said, is to help more people have access to professional advice and help more designers to find potential clients at a difficult moment for business and a growing need for help.
Kishk has taken part in the DTG-Esorus initiative and says that “many people are now pursuing more comfortable houses over anything else.” This, he said, applied to people living in gated communities as much as to people living in smaller city apartments.
Both Korashi and Kishk said that the trend for commissioning interior designers had been picking up since the beginning of the new millennium. For Korashi, it was not necessarily about more modern design, but was rather about removing the flashy and substituting what was easy to maintain.
This had meant slower demand for classic European-style furniture, traditionally popular among the upper classes in Egypt, and increased demand for versions of traditional Egyptian-style furniture that has carved out a niche for itself over recent decades.
“We are not necessarily seeing a lot of mashrabiya [wooden window screens], even though we have seen lots of traditional windows inspired by simpler mashrabiya designs over the past 10 years,” Korashi said.
Korashi and Kishk are both convinced that during the past decade many people have been liberated from pre-conceived ideas about what makes a house pleasant to live in.
People are less likely to succumb to social expectations about having houses furnished with classic European-style furniture, and they are less likely to want the large items that dominated the interiors of people who had been working in the Gulf.
According to Ayman Kashti, whose experience in the interior design industry goes back to the 1980s, the growing number of furniture and home décor exhibitions in Egypt has been a factor that has helped to develop the growing trend for houses designed with comfort in mind.
Egypt has been seeing more and more exhibitions designed to cater for designers, and many of these have also attracted the attention of customers. “When one goes into an exhibition, one finds items and material for the indoors and outdoors — not just in terms of furniture, lights, and textiles, but also material for walls and floors. This can provide ideas for customers as well as designers,” Kashti said.
Mustafa Ismail, an organiser of one of Egypt’s oldest and most popular home décor and furniture exhibitions, said that the displays he has organised over the years have “come a long way from what they were.
“When I compare the items and designers in the 1990s to what we have today, I would say that the world has changed around us,” Ismail said.
This year, all furniture and office and home décor exhibitions in Egypt have been cancelled because of guidelines imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. There has also been a significant drop in the sales of furniture of around 50 per cent, according to the furniture manufacturing division of the industries union.
However, Laz said that social media had to an extent filled the gap, with many designers and customers finding their targeted items online and then having them delivered.
Sahar Kamal, also a designer with three decades of experience, said that new market trends had helped to introduce the public to wider choices, many of them local but also designed with European, Asian or Arab influences in mind.
“As local production has been on the increase, there has been quite a wide range of items for all budget types,” she said, adding that this had “opened new windows for shopping that were not there 30 or 40 years ago and that are mostly about what is modern and comfortable.
“Over the past 20 years or so, the public has been looking for something new or different, and the market has been expanding to offer more variety,” Kamal said.
In the future, Korashi argued, designers and suppliers are likely to have to work even harder to meet the growing needs of people who have been spending more time in their houses because of the coronavirus and who may eventually end up wanting to do so even after the crisis ends.
“Outdoor items that fit balconies and items that fit both indoors and outdoors are likely to dominate future furniture and décor exhibitions, maybe as soon as next year when the coronavirus is behind us,” Kishk said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly