Their designs can be seen in impressive office spaces around Cairo and dreamy homes around the country; contemporary with a touch of local character, established in 2000, Eklego has quickly carved a name for itself as a leading interior design firm. They have conquered homes with their furniture, left an imprint with signature lighting fixtures and redefined Egyptian-inspired design.
You can see their contemporary-meets-Nubian fusion in their masterpiece of a Nile Dahabiya boat, and they’ve proven they can do industrial modern just as well as contemporary and luxurious in their design for Mince Restaurant in Arkan. They also left signatures in Aperitivo Bar and Restaurant, Gourmet shops, and Ted’s restaurant. But our personal favorite, and one that truly captures their effortlessly chic essence and simplicity is their work on Left Bank, Zamalek.
In celebration of the International Women’s Day, we chatted with the two ladies behind Eklego Design, co-founders Dina El Khachab and Hedayet Islam to talk about the business of creating beautiful spaces and what it’s like to run one of the most successful interior design firms in Egypt, particularly one with solid female leadership. The third partner who came on board later on and is now the retail business unit leader is also a lady; Heba El Gabaly.
El Khachab and Islam have both received numerous awards for their work; El Khachab holds two architecture degrees from McGill University in Montreal and Islam studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design.
Starting with only a staff of three; Islam, Kahachab and Fathy, the office boy, worked from Islam’s grandmother’s dining room. Today, they grew into a team of 72 people with two showrooms in Cairo and plan for the third in the upcoming months, with services ranging from furniture to home, office, retail and hospitality designs. Having worked on 700 projects, they have perfected the art of combining modern techniques and designs while utilizing traditional crafts to achieve their own blend of furniture and interior design.
How has your partnership helped the business succeed and how do you divide the tasks between you?
There’s been a lot of different phases for Eklego and for all of us. We started off as two freelance designers, offering certain services and it developed into a business. From the interior design service business, it developed into a retail shop; they’re actually very different types of businesses. Four years later, we partnered with a third person, Heba El Gabaly who basically managed the retail to build it to where it is today. That helped, of course; retail is a very heavy-operations business and [the] marketing interior design is a little bit more based on the actual designers. If you don’t have the [right] designers, you won’t build into that business people would want to come back to.
In 2013, the original founder [Islam] left to London for family reasons and now works part-time. My other partner moved to Dubai almost a year and a half ago…now I’m doing both business and creative with a team of 72 people. I have to wear both hats; the hat of retail and that of interior design, as well as the manager of interior design… as we grew, I took the more formal role in the business part of interior design, Heba [Gabaly] took the retail and Heddy [Islam] took the projects.
So it does help having a partner; I think it’s extremely crucial.
These are personal decisions, however, and some people really like working on their own; for me, I get a lot of inspiration from people. I think it’s extremely exciting to wake up everyday and come up with new ideas with people.
Finding a partner that you trust and have good chemistry with is rare, but once you do, then nothing is more effective at propelling a company forward. I started on my own in 1997, but once I met Dina [Khachab] and we started working together three years later, Eklego really started to take shape as a proper design company. By 2005, we opened our first retail shop and again, it was propelled forward by two other partners, Hala Said, who worked diligently on building Eklego’s brand name and then Heba El Gabaly, who joined us in 2008, and really pushed the company’s retail arm.
What are some challenging obstacles that you have faced in your career?
Balancing the family-versus-work formula.
What is the biggest project that you worked on and are proud of?
Forty West was a really big project for us with Sodic, where we created fully finished luxury apartments on a mass scale.
Forty West as well, it is a commercial project and a large residential house overlooking the pyramids. There are also quite a few Eklego products that we are equally proud of: Bukhara table, Depet sofa, Envelope table, among others.
What is the best advice you were given at the beginning of your career, and what would you tell the young up-and-coming designers?
I was told to follow my passion and not pursue money...and that all would fall into place if you work hard enough.
What’s your favorite project that you worked on? What is your dream project?
I love all of my projects. One of our strengths at Eklego, for me, is that we’re always doing different projects. We’re working with companies that think differently, so that, for me is the most important; so long as the projects are changing, every different project is my favorite project.
One of the recent ones that we finished was a sales center at Marakez; one of the reasons we liked it is that we actually approached the work space that they were going to work in in a very different way. It was catering to a need that they had, as well as sort of having a space that imposes the way they work on them. When you walk in the place, you feel alive, everybody is working everywhere, and everybody is using all of the spaces. There is no one room dedicated for one thing…For me, this is where design and space is going: the idea of not having a fixed space for one thing. I think that’s exciting.
What or who inspires you?
In general, people inspire me and people’s stories inspire me. So, things that are different or unique are always points of inspiration; it doesn’t matter if it’s in design, sports, business or a developer. In the last seven days, I can mention six people who inspired me; there is always inspiration in people. My partners inspire me, my team inspires me, my showroom managers inspire me.
I don’t think that design is about using a product, it’s about thinking what the product is trying to solve and maybe it doesn’t end up being a coffee table, maybe it turns out that the person doesn’t need a coffee table. It’s about solving the problem and not the actual functional thing.
Patricia Urquiola has been an eternal inspiration. She is a Spanish designer who is extremely versatile in her interiors, as well as product designs; she builds very much on her heritage and effectively translates it into beautiful design pieces.
What is your favorite home accessory?
I’m a minimalist. I don’t know about home accessories; but one of my favorite accessories is this funky pen/pencil that I have. It’s really this ridiculously tacky pen; the lad is really fat, you can sketch and you can also write really easily. I’m more practical, I think.
What fabric or material do you prefer to use?
I love to use cotton and linens in general; anything that is natural and is as closest to raw material as possible, so wools too. I still like clean lines, but I also like unique pieces like velvet; so I’ll like something that’s a bit crazy, or a crazy color, but just a one off.
I love natural and noble materials, as well as strong and durable ones. I love to use my Jam Space fabrics, which were designed in collaboration with many other younger talents.