Infusing the past with the present

Text: Menha al-Batrawi - Photos: Hesham Labib - Interior design: Shahira Mehriz, Wednesday 12 Jan 2011

Her passion for traditional architecture and art has made Shahira Mehrez a master of proportion and balance, and a woman with strong views of historical traditional usage and contemporary needs

The heritage afficionado
The heritage afficionado

“Every country has its civilisation, and this civilisation must inspire its future,” she says. For Mehrez, modernisation is not a break from the past, but a continuation.

There is a tendency among designers to follow a western path and then embellish their creations with oriental elements, which ends up in what Meherz believes are a ‘bastardised hybrid’. “Instead of infusing the present with the past, we should infuse the past with the present,” she says. “We should introduce modern elements advisedly, if we want to remain in touch with our roots”.

She remembers a man who used to do just that. The world-famous architect Hassan Fathi was a friend of Mehrez. One day, she accompanied him on a visit to the Sultan Hassan mosque and as Fathi had his violin with him, when the two sat down, he played a piece by Brahms. Then he turned to her and said, “My dear, here are two instances of genius: western music and Arab architecture.”

In her house, she blends Ottoman and Egyptian tastes, combining lattice work with local porcelain and clay pots. Her bathroom, with carved wood and columns is a masterpiece of modern plumbing with medieval references.

The Arabic seating, with the relaxed intimacy of comfortable cushions, brings authenticity and luxury to her home. She has been collecting old furniture for years now. And her house is the nearest one can imagine to the homes of the nineteenth century, homes that are disappearing all around us at an alarming rate.

According to Mehrez, traditional Egyptian taste is minimalist. She says that Egyptians are not big on needless embellishments. “Their decoration”, she declares,” is simple and their art is almost abstract and sparse”.

This is why she’s appalled by those who prefer to buy expensive Aubusson rugs rather than authentic and affordable kelims. Mehrez cannot understand why people would buy crystal lampshades, instead of hand-made Egyptian brass lanterns. And forget the coffee table, she prefers the round, low Egyptian table, known locally as tabliya.

Mehrez is often offended by the architectural course that Cairo has taken. “Why have they pulled down the Sermiramis hotel, and how can they say that the visual boundaries of Salaheddin’s castle is no more than 70 metres?” she asks. In her home, the past lives on - as capable, alluring and contemporary as she wants it to be.

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