How To Find Great Craftsmen In Egypt And Get The Job Done! - Part One

New year, new beginnings! Early January marked the end of my experience at Reform Studio where I worked as a Product Designer for the last year. Reform is a design studio in Cairo that designs furniture products from an interwoven plastic textile-like material made out of plastic bags.

In this post I’ll share one of the major takeaways from my experience in Reform Studio. As many other small product design businesses we were having major problems in finding the right manufacturers and suppliers. You can’t really deal with big manufacturers because A. their prices are relatively high because B. you produce in relatively small quantities. So you cross your fingers and rely on craftsmen be it a woodworker, metal smith, upholsterer, etc. If you are a product designer then you know what could go wrong in that situation! I am not going to go on and list the many craftsmen nightmares we faced, I am sure you’ve all had your share of nightmares! I am leaving the comments section for that! Let’s dive right into the useful parts, shall we?

I was assigned to find an upholsterer for all of Reform’s furniture collections. And yea you’ve guessed it right, I’ve found him!! I’ve found the one! It is possible! It’s not pure luck or chance, there are certain steps I’ve taken hoping it would make my quest easier and fruitful and it did! I have found a skilful upholsterer that can maintain the level of quality we wanted and best of all understands the concept of time!! Hallelujah!

Using my experience as a case study, I came up with a set of steps on how to find great craftsmen in Egypt and get the job done!

1-Set your priorities: Time, Quality and Cost.

The first step I took was setting Reform’s priorities. Since Reform ‘designs for a better quality of life’ therefore quality had to be our number one priority. And while I am at it, please do not hopelessly board the ‘this is how it is done in Egypt! That’s the best it can be!’ train of thought, as a designer you’re the one in control here, you’re the one with the plan, the blueprints are in your hands. You raise the bar, how high or how low is your decision.

So set the level or quantity of each; how long would it take, level of quality you want, and how much should it cost. Then put each one in its right order. For example, if there was a step in the upholstery that would increase the production time but raise the quality would you go for it? Would time even be a priority if you were producing handmade products? This will be your measuring stick throughout the whole process, and it can help right from the start too. I limited my search area to only areas near Reform’s workshop so that we can have lower transportation costs.

The famous Egg and Swan chairs by Arne Jacobsen were both fully hand stitched, that is how they can tell a fake from a real design; the original design had bigger stitch holes and marks from all the tugging. Every little detail adds to the value of your design, set your priorities straight.

2- Do Your Research; Locally And Globally

  • The common local practices

Don’t expect to walk into a craftsmen shop, drop a few items on his workbench and tell him I want this done and he’s going to do it exactly like you wanted! If you don’t know how it’s done and this was clear to him, then you are just another customer who wants another thing done.

My university in Malaysia was a hands-on design school, we had to make our own furniture designs and prototypes; we sawed wood, welded metal and my classmates always amazed me by what they can do. It was intimidating at first and not up until my last year was I completely comfortable in the workshop. So I was trained to know how everything is done because I had to do it myself! I know that you can cut wood in many different ways; cutting your raw material efficiently can lower your costs and even provide you with suitable leftovers for maybe a new table design.

So naturally I wanted to see how the previous upholsterer did the job, and so should you. Observe, ask questions and allow room for feedback. Check the quality of the sample he made and lower your expectations by half for the next piece! Because he is doing his best job in front of you! Of course not all craftsmen behave in the same manner, but spot the ones who have the ‘mish moshkila’ attitude. There is always no problem. There is always a solution to everything and anything at all. He couldn’t find his saw blade to cut the foam, mish moshkila! No problem! He’s going to use scissors instead! Don’t mistake this to a ‘thinking on your feet’ attitude. To me seeing a craftsman give up his tools is extremely alarming!

  • The common global practices

Don’t settle for the general idea! If all you know is that upholstery is stretching fabric over foam on a wooden board then you got to dig deeper! If you just know wood jointing names and not when they are used or how they are made then dig deeper!

Next visit the magical land of youtube where you can find upholsterers all over the world doing their magic. Find out how foam is cut or custom made, how to measure fabric for upholstery, how to start off a piece, how to edge foam or how to upholster curved areas. Dig to the details; how the piping is made, which seams would you use? Discover new tools used, and new techniques! There is more to it than stretching fabric over foam!

The best thing about doing this is that you need to do this extensive research maybe twice or trice in your whole design career. Now I know how 95% of the chairs on our earth are upholstered!

And that was part one! More steps to come stay tuned for part 2! Subscribe if you haven’t already so that you wont miss out. Comment down below and tell me all about your craftsmen nightmares, what problems are you facing? Or how did you deal with it?