By Claire Rosemberg
PARIS, Feb 4, 2007 (AFP) - Egyptians proudly say their pharaohs invented furniture. And now the country’s fourth biggest industry is seeking to come out of the woodwork and carve out a place on the global scene, with the help of the world’s top designers.
“For you it may be only a piece of furniture, for us it’s a tradition,” said Ahmed Aly Hely, who heads the country’s Furniture Export Council.
Speaking at this week’s giant Paris home fair, Maison et Objet, Helmy cited as proof a 4,500-year-old chair made for Hetepheres, mother of Khufu, the 4th Dynasty pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid of Giza, often known as Cheops.
“We have no wood, no forests,” he told AFP. “But we’ve been cabinet-makers for generations. Now we’re looking to make our mark on the international scene.”
Builders over thousands of years of the giant wooden boats that plied the Nile -- one was found sealed at the base of the great pyramid of Giza -- and centuries-old makers of intricate Oriental-style carvings and lattices, the industry employs a million people in some 200,000 companies, big and small.
Fine oaks come from Western Europe and the United States, beech from Europe and South America, while cheaper pine is from eastern Europe.
But as Asian furnishings flood western markets, Egypt’s furniture-makers are setting their sights on expanding exports, in the last two years alone bumping up sales abroad 39 percent to 200 million dollars (150 million euros), with a four-fold increase projected over the next two years.
At the Paris trade fair, one of the design world’s top events with 83,000 professional visitors in attendance, Egypt did not go unnoticed.
Sixteen big companies booked 1,000 square metres (10,800 square feet) in centre-space to show off goods ranging from elaborate copycat Louis XV or Regency models to high-end contemporary kitsch.
A glam four-metre-long couch in hot-pink fake-fur decorated with silver-leaf, going for more than a thousand dollars, jostled for attention with an even longer five-metre silver-leafed solid beech table, priced in the same range, a console wearing camouflage, and a giant jewellery box the size of a chest of drawers, in cow leather posing as crocodile.
“If we don’t create a market for quality products we might not survive,” said Shereef Hady, a member of the exports board and who heads of one of the furniture majors.
“Egypt is an emerging country and with trade barriers falling we have discovered we cannot endure the challenge of competing against others unless we promote and improve our goods.”
At home, Egypt’s furniture-makers supply schools, hospitals, hotels and offices. Abroad, they supply US, European and Arab markets with elaborate and often hand-carved antique replicas -- notably Louis XV and Louis XVI bedroom, dining room and lounge room sets -- at more than reasonable prices.
The style, nurtured in Egypt following Napoleon’s late 18th-century takeover of the country, “is made of excellent wood and is half the cost of what you could find anywhere else,” said a London buyer who asked not to be identified.
“Egypt too is just a four-hour plane trip away, much more accessible to a buyer than the markets in Asia.”
But there were often order mix-ups and packaging and quality glitches, she said. And Egypt was unable to supply fabrics that met British fireproofing regulations.
To that end, the industry is developing quality control centres and training facilities, while working with its main country buyers to streamline quality, said Hely, the head of the export council.
“We have cheap labour, we have new state-of-the-art factories and we also have the know-how of centuries of craftsmanship,” he insisted. Another plus for Egypt was the industry’s capacity to produce small or large quantities of any single item.
Pointing to an oversize kitsch armchair, hand-painted and upholstered in fake leopard-skin and going for 400 euros, one manufacturer said: “In Japan or elsewhere you would have to order 1,000 of these -- in Egypt you can order just five.”
Sticking to their reputation for fine craftsmanship, the Egyptians are shunning any idea of competing with cheap Asian products they say are designed for the mass market, instead looking to snare the medium-to-high end.
“We no longer want to just produce copies,” said Helmy. “We want to produce a fresh new look for Egypt. We are going into design.”
And Egypt’s new face is Karim Rashid, a New York-based half-Egyptian big-spectacled designer who has worked for the likes of Alessi, Prada, Georg Jensen and Miyake and who is described by pros as one of design’s Top Five.
Rashid has begun work for the Egyptians and offered more than 100 designs, “modern but linked to the deep history of Pharaonic Egypt,” said Hady.
“This is a new concept in leading the Egyptian economy to globalisation,” the manufacturer said. “If you can open famous international magazines and you see it is by Karim Rashid and it’s produced in Egypt, it will make not only furniture but other industries flourish.”
As for China, said Sherif Sadek, maker of classical-style furniture, Egypt was ready.
“Our advantage over China is that they’re limited in their workmanship. We are specialised. It is time to tackle the international market, and even China, in a year.”