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Islamic design & geometry

It is commonly Beirut or Cairo that we think of as the centres for creativity and design in the Middle East, but we might soon have to think again. A new hub for creative contemporary design is emerging in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria.

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ENCODE, or Egyptian Node for Collaborative Design, was founded by a small group of architects, most of which are graduates from the University of Alexandria. More than a design studio, ENCODE is also a research lab where the new IT techniques applicable to design are explored. Investing their own savings in the project, Ebtissam Farid, Mohamed Zaghloul, Ahmed Hassan and Ahmed Abouelkheir founded it with only what was at hand.

Last July, they presented their work for the first time within the framework of the exhibition Design is a Verb, organised by Library of Alexandria’s Arts Center. “There was a call for proposals to participate in the project. We filed an application and we were selected by the jury,” explains Ebtissam. With the help of two artistic grants from the British Council, in 2011 and 2012, they could then create their first prototypes.

Much of their work has been made as part of a research program called Ornamatics. The idea with the project is to develop new ways of presenting traditional Islamic patterns, through using mathematics and digital tools. To ENCODE, the Islamic decorative heritage has not been given the attention it deserves recently, and it risks becoming a stagnant design form, only appearing as repetitions of old creativity, without innovation. The group therefore sought to give the art form a new life, using contemporary techniques. The decorative patterns of Islamic art are often comprised of geometric figures, such as stars, polygons and lancet arches, which renders them great for exploring using mathematics and geometry. For centuries, the region’s craftsmen and artists have developed these patterns from a purely aesthetic side, without paying attention to this aspect.

It was the ongoing revolutionary phase in Egypt that inspired ENCODE to start working with patterns from traditional Islam. The current changes relate a lot to the issue of Egypt’s identity and how it is being redefined, which led the group to explore matters related to their own identities. At the same time, it was an efficient way for them to show what possibilities IT and mathematics have in the design field. Graphic design – the transformation of lines and forms – becomes more interesting when original, well-known, patterns are used, that are deeply rooted in local popular culture. The result of ENCODE’s experiment with Islamic traditional art is a process of ongoing distortions and contortions of patterns which we are used to see in static and frozen forms.

A range of everyday objects – tables, mirrors, curtains and chairs – in materials ranging from wood and cardboard to plexiglas and fabric, have been decorated with Ornamatics designs. For now, says Ahmed Abouelkheir, they are only test products, but they might well be available in the future should the group decide to do commercial productions.

Rather than being business-oriented though, the ENCODE team emphasise their collaborative work and knowledge-sharing. For the members of the collective, it is collaborating and sharing that are the best ways to move forward, both for ENCODE and society as a whole. Each of the team members brings his or her strengths to the collaboration – Mohamed, for example, is the best mathematic, which means that he gets to assist the others on technical stuff. In the end, no ENCODE piece is an individual piece of work, but rather a result of their collective efforts.

ENCODE is a new enterprise, yet the techniques they have developed are already used by others. Jewellery designer Eman Banna, who runs the brand Eman Design, joined ENCODE to learn how to use mathematical techniques in her own creations – the result is a collection of jewellery within the Ornamatics project.

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