Interior Designer Nihal Zaki: A Tale of Luxury and Practicality

By Soha Elsirgany

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When Egyptian interior designer Nihal Zaki got on a plane to Dubai in September for the Africa and Arabia Property Awards, she did not know she would take home not one, but three prestigious honors that night.

Zaki’s “Karma Residence” project, in addition to being one of the winners in the category of Residential Design, was also provided with an Excellence Award, enabling her to compete on a global level in the International Property Awards (IPA).

The Property Awards have celebrated exceptional achievement in the real estate industry by honoring the best projects from companies in all sectors. Contenders are evaluated by leading industry experts, who ultimately determine the world’s finest companies in the field.

Though the top winners in every region are automatically nominated for the overall International Awards, Zaki will be the only contender for “Best Interior Design of Private Residence – Africa” in London next December, while the other categories may have more than one competitor from Africa or Arabia.

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To give an idea of how much detail went into this residential haute-couture project, The Chinese Bathroom of the Karma estate was among the ten finalists for the SBID (Society of British International Design) International Design Excellence Awards in the category of KBB (Kitchen, Bedroom and/or Bathroom).

This project holds a special place in Zaki’s heart, not only because of the recent award, but also as a very fulfilling campaign.

“It took five years to complete, and was like a beacon of light at the time when many projects were cutting down their budgets during the revolution’s break out,” the designer tells Community Times.

Nihal Zaki’s Background

Flashback to almost 20 years before receiving her awards, Zaki was an AUC graduate of Economics and Psychology, working as a researcher and publishing a paper on the GATT textile agreement.

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Despite excelling in that position, she jumped at an opportunity offered to her from a family friend who knew she had a unique taste, to handle the styling and art direction of a furniture showroom.

“I come from a family that has always been interested in antiques, and was often with them in Europe visiting shops and markets, and so I grew up knowing about the different styles,” Zaki says.

She spent five years directing the showroom, immersed in all its aspects and getting a hands-on experience. Meanwhile, she also had another opportunity to help in styling interior shoots, an experience that taught her a lot about how to light interiors; a major aspect in design.

In those formative years she knew she had found her calling, and took it a step further with a diploma at the prestigious and private Inchbald School of Design in London, specialized in interiors.

“This experience is what shaped me. They took us on tours to mansions, private houses, country side visits, visits to the harbor of fabrics, and I learned about everything from antique restorations to how to deal with clients,” Zaki shares.

Upon completing the diploma, she was offered the opportunity to work with two of the biggest names in the field; Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, and Persian designer Alidad, who were both based in London. Zaki declined both offers, in favor of returning to her homeland and starting her own design house.

“I just love Egypt and everything it stands for. All the resources, the authenticity, the history, the culture in every corner on every street, the materials and the colors … for an artist to be born and raised here, it is great,” she explains.

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Karma Residence Project

The Karma Residence has 20 different styles, each room with a different theme, while an underlying soft palette connects them and transfers you from one room to another. The estate stood out at the awards for its unique and eclectic style.

“My project was the only one that offered a classic period style, and many were surprised, asking me if people were still using this in Egypt,” Zaki says, adding that some of the hand-painted work on the walls are recreations of a palace in Paris. She emphasized that every detail was a result of deep research.

“It is nice to have a client who is well acquainted with the different period styles, and who also believes in me and challenges me at the same time.”

Challenges Faced

Sometimes however, working with a client can present a different type of challenge for a designer with such a clear and particular voice to reconcile her own taste with her client’s.

When it comes to designing their homes, many people still cling to traditional ideas that have proved impractical, or simply want to follow the latest hypes or trends.

“I do not follow trends, as I believe you can have both luxury and practicality. There are times when I try to convince my client against certain choices, like for example, in a two storey house, why have a large dining room on the first floor that is never used while the upper floor is crammed with several bedrooms. So I keep trying to push for my own vision, project after project, until maybe eventually it could lead to a new trend,” she mentions.

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What it Takes to be a Good Designer

As such, Zaki believes that psychology and skillful communication are at the heart of what makes a good designer. “I am responsible for conveying my work to the people, meaning they are not responsible for understanding my work on their own.”

In their initial meetings, Zaki would show her client photos of a variety of styles, even for directions that are not her favorite, all the while taking extensive notes of their reactions. “Often clients come with a lot to say but not knowing how to express it. So part of my job is to extract this vision from their minds to help them reflect what they want,” explains Zaki.

She adds that designing a residence is a very personal experience where she typically works closely with a client for a period between 9 months to 2 years, which is unlike commercial projects, where there is a tighter time limit and different market needs with less personalization.

Showroom and Design House

The most creative freedom though, can be witnessed at the designer’s showroom, where visitors can immerse in the Nihal Zaki experience. “This is where I tried to display everything I like. I attempted to be a little more commercial, but could not fully do that. I wanted it to really reflect who I am.”

It was also important for her to show that it is possible to mix styles, and how she makes it work. “I would like a client to be able to walk into the showroom and feel that anything is possible and can be done.”

Antique furniture is paired with unique lighting fixtures and intriguing objects, and while every piece screams for attention, it all fits together with flair to create a multilayered visual that is both familiar and unique.

To Zaki, designing a space is all about creating a sensation and capturing an emotion. The first things you might notice upon entering her showroom are the scents that greet you, and how they differ in every room, making it “an experience” that goes beyond the arrangement of furniture.

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Meanwhile, as her firm grows, Zaki still favors quality over quantity, and limits the number of clients between four to five per year.

“We are a full-fledged design house, which is very rare in Egypt. Everyone is a designer because that is the easiest part, but we also contract, and do all the finishing to deliver turn-key projects. I feel this is part of my integrity as a designer; to deliver things exactly the way I intended,” she explains.

Their process when working on classical designs is very old school. “We print the designs at a scale of 1 to 1 (life size), and we make all the molds and casts for any sculpted décor and techniques that rarely nyone uses these days,” she says. Everything is executed by her team of designers and artists who pull off all the incredibly detailed work in top caliber. “I also like to invest in young designers, often fresh graduates,” she adds. “Every now and then, I find someone with great potential.”

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For someone as detail oriented and vision-driven as Zaki, she can’t help but micromanage, and the larger part of the work behind the scenes is personally done by her.

Every morning after sending her daughter to school, she has two focused hours for herself dedicated to researching and designing. “Material for research comes from everywhere: photos I take on the streets, pieces of fabric, anything I see and want to capture is all carefully archived in digital folders. When I need to summon something for a project, I can tell my team exactly where to find it.”

Asked to describe her style in her own words, Zaki says “I do not like to ‘box myself’ and put myself in certain categories.” To simply label Zaki as a “classic” designer would be unfair to her eclectic style, and the relevance she adds to a classic setting makes it more practical.

“I find modern to be dull as it has no soul nor warmth. I am also very bold, and I like what is authentic, has substance and has weight. In the end, the goal is to represent a person [or client] in the language of design,” Zaki mentions.

Egypt’s Real Estate and Interior Design Industry

The designer believes that Egypt has so much potential, and despite the many challenges it faces, it is still thriving in the field of design.

“Just look at all the billboards on the streets for current and upcoming development and real estate projects,” she concludes. As real estate booms on the edges of Cairo and on the North Coast, interior design thrives in parallel.

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