How Alchemy Design Studio Is Conquering The Egyptian Design Scene

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Oct 11 2019 / 11:20 AM

Pioneering Cairo-based hybrid interior design and architecture firm Alchemy Design Studio boasts avant-garde craftsmanship and inspirations rooted in medieval times. We speak to the founders on their vision and the projects they are most proud of

How Alchemy Design Studio Is Conquering The Egyptian Design Scene
Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio
An outdoor view of the G Hotel

What began as a small interior and product design office in Cairo in 1997, swiftly flourished into a multidisciplinary establishment called Alchemy Design Studio. Specialising in product design, interior solutions and residential and commercial architecture, the firm was first founded by Cairo-born architect-designer Karim Mekhtigian, who was later joined by 42 year old architect-designer Mohamed Fares and 33 year old Egyptian architect Eman Hussein.
With an Armenian origin and upbringing in Cairo, Mekhtigian moved to Paris, France for a decade, where he studied interior design and scenography at École Supérieure d’Art et Techniques. After returning to his hometown, he worked as an Art Director for several initiatives to promote the local design scene, including the Egyptian stand at the Salone del mobile in 2009.

Mekhtigian set up an interior design office in 1997 and a few years later in 2002, he met Fares, his first business partner, who worked with Mekhtigian part-time for six months in a downtown studio. Fares has worked on several residential and commercial projects across Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, firmly believing that a designer’s strength lies in his ability to explore and innovate. “The concept is to go beyond the project, big or small,” says Fares. “It is to look beyond the surface to give it narrative by searching and looking closely so you can find the essence of the subject that inspires every element of the project.”

Gouna Chaise Longue and Bookshelf designed by Francesco Rota
Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio

In May 2003, Alchemy’s first showroom launched in the suburban Maadi district, expanding the studio’s scope of work to residential, commercial and corporate projects. The firm prospered seamlessly from that point on. In 2008, branding, design and retail management were added to their portfolio of work. Then, two years later, the company launched their exclusive furniture brand entitled Alchemy Cairo followed by the opening of their biggest showroom yet at Egypt’s Designopolis Mall, which housed a wide range of products for the home crafted by renowned international designers including Milan-based designer Francesco Rota and Mekhtigian himself.

In 2011, Mekhtigian and Fares met Hussein, who joined Alchemy as an assistant designer, excelling into her position of Art Director just three years later. Since completing her master’s thesis from London-based University of Greenwich, Hussein has always been fascinated by the concept of form, seeking to unravel the codes that strictly define disciplines. “My approach to art and design is quite similar,” she says. “I am interested in morphing forms - I believe that designing a space is a process that does not stop when the work is concluded but survives long after when life is injected into the space and it continues to alter its reality and state of being.” She adds, “The designer sets the guidelines and framework through which the space organically takes form and relentlessly reconfigures itself with an unlimited range of potentials.”

An exterior view of the G Hotel

Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio

Stemming from the Egyptian word ‘Kyme’ referring to Egypt as the black land, the studio symbolises the origins of the medieval practice of alchemy, reflecting the country’s ancient culture. “Egyptian heritage is very rich with different cultural movements that got entrenched in the Egyptian historical identity,” shares Mekhtigian. “Spanning the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Ptolemaic to Islamic periods and the ottomans, the products created were made by taking different elements of each time and reinterpreting that into a central topic in the design of say, a sofa, chair or a table.” The name signifies the beauty of transforming materials into inimitable design objects through intricate craftsmanship.

“Design is taking something and through manipulation, creating something precious,” expresses Hussein. “Just like the science of alchemy - turning base metals into gold.” The year 2013 marked the launch of Alchemy Architecture, a sector of the firm specialising in large scale architectural projects. A year later, the department worked on Seashell North Coast, a beachfront compound in the town of El Alamein by the Mediterranean Egyptian coastline, serving as a residential space and hotel. “The G hotel was created with the overall inspiration of the compound theme - the real North Coast Egyptian experience but with an extra finesse of luxury,” say Mekhtigian, Fares and Hussein. 

An interior view of the G Hotel

Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio

For the project, the studio joined forces with renowned Lisbon-based hospitality group Harvest Cotton Tale and a Cairo-based boutique branding company known as Lunar Jetman. “It was challenging to introduce a new architectural language to the North Coast of Egypt,” admits Hussein. “We’ve worked on architectural forms that are disentangled to allow the flow of air and integration of indoor and outdoor spaces. We’ve worked with simple layers and elements that were combined in different ways to create the experience of space.”

A stone’s throw from the historic Tahrir Square, after the revered Groppi café endured wars and the Egyptian revolution, its structure still persevered. Originally built by Swiss pastry chef and chocolate maker Giacomo Groppi in the 20th century, the chocolate produced at the café was greatly admired by the late King Farouk, the former ruler of Egypt. In 2017, Alchemy was assigned to revive the space.

Eman Hussein

Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio

“When we first entered the site for Groppi, we were able to recover certain archival material that filled in the gaps for what was missing in context of the monumental space,” shares Mekhtigian. “The way we view Groppi is that it is more of a restoration than it is a remodel so the word revival does make sense in that context. Due to the poor conditions of the site, several elements have to be reconstructed and because of the archival materials and photos recovered, we are able to guarantee an original experience of the space.” The project became one of the many that Fares is most proud of.

Neighbouring the bustling Cairo Alexandria Road, the Designopolis retail compound was home the largest Alchemy showroom featuring a collection of pieces that reflect the founders’ underlying design philosophy. “The showroom showcased our products by several key designers that are displayed together to create the alchemy way of creating living spaces,” says Mekhtigian.

Mohamed Fares

Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio

“Having such a rich historical base, the products were always developed to stay current.” Included was a contemporary piece called Infinity Kato, a minimalist, cream-coloured curved sofa designed by Mekhtigian which has been inspired by his cultural heritage in Egypt and travels across the world. “I am always effected by the work of the Italians and the French, sometimes the Germans as well, but the inspiration always comes from the ancient and historical civilizations of Egypt which continue to inspire me and reflect in my work, so my own heritage is always prominent in my work,” he shares. “It’s not like buying a fashionable piece of furniture that one will start to watch as it gets outdated because there is a cultural narrative to each product - the pieces are timeless.”

Also featured was the H Lounge Seat and the Stainless Stool designed by French designer Christophe Pillet, who has been a dear friend of Mekhtigian’s for years. “The collaboration was based on a mutual vision of what design should be,” says Mekhtigian.

Karim Mekhtigian

Courtesy of Alchemy Design Studio

“Especially when you mix minds coming from two different cultural backgrounds, the products that come out have a sleek new perspective of the stereotypical designed products.” The leather and metal Gouna Chaise Longue and Bookshelf designed by Italian designer Francesco Rota is another highlight of the collection.  “The collaboration with Francesco Rota also enriched Alchemy’s design perspective,” says Mekhtigian. “It is always beneficial to collaborate with likeminded designers to create something different. The exposure to French and Italian design fields is beneficial as a whole, as it is for them to find out more about the minds that come from one of the oldest civilizations in the world too.”

Whether an office, restaurant, residential space or a home décor piece, the studio prides itself on taking their work a step further than design by manifesting lifestyles inspired by urban narratives. “There is always a lot happening and there is always something coming along the way, however we like to maintain the element of surprise with our work,” says Hussein. “So keep your eyes open for where you might catch us next.”

From the fall 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors