Dalia Sadany Architect
Woman in the
Construction Boots and Fendi Bag
How a perfectly polished young woman carved herself a place in the very macho world of contracting and construction, all the while maintaining her design flair By Nadine El Sayed
Courtesy Dalia Sadany
t’s hard to imagine a trendy young woman in a funky blouse, cropped trousers, perfect hair and polished nails on a construction site blasting orders to workers then sitting down with her crew to share a glass of tea and a fuul sandwich. It’s hard, that is, until you meet Dalia Sadany in person. Sadany, the chief designer and founder of Dezines Architecture and Interior Design, bursts with confidence. We met at her eclectic but contemporary office lodged in the heart of busy Mohandessin, and the ambiance definitely reflected her: bold, trendy, clean-lined and standing out amidst the busy mismatch of buildings. Sitting in the reception waiting for our interview, I could overhear her conversation with a client, so the first impression I got, before even meeting Sadany, was that she definitely spoke her mind. Shuffling between two appointments, Sadany came rushing out and sat down to chat with me while her assistant took over the other meeting. The multi-tasking skills of a master builder shone through several times as Sadany attended to a client, answered her employees’ enquiries, and managed to spend an hour and a half with me speaking about her career, her love life, architecture, art and even politics.
materials they need to transform a vision into reality and how practically feasible their designs are. She, for one, is a firm believer in being very hands-on at the execution phase, and she isn’t afraid to get down and dirty to work on a piece of furniture, or even a wall for that matter. “I realized then that however good I am
The Master Builder To see a successful businesswoman who juggles her personal life, career and all the pressures society puts on women in our culture is inspiring, especially if it’s one thriving in a very male-dominated industry like contracting. And Sadany believes women can do a rather good job at it too. “Women have a tendency to be meticulous and have an eye for detail,” Sadany says. “This is why we are drama queens, we focus on details and contracting is about details.” Sadany, who has been in the business for almost Sadany’s award-winning Babour 20 years, explains that designers have to know the Dawar table
Hayssam Samir/Egypt Today
Dalia Sadany Architect
Courtesy Dalia Sadany
in design I can’t do design and turn it to reality unless I study contracting,” Sadany says. With a degree in construction engineering, she wanted to do more than to design models and watch from a distance as someone else brought them to life — and never to her best liking at that. So she decided to take on the whole job, from the minute when it’s still a vague idea her clients might be interested in until the point where they happily move in. After graduation, seeing she needed to learn more about her business, Sadany went to Italy to study and get hands-on experience in interior design and landscaping. She came back to work for one of the biggest real estate developers in Egypt, becoming the head of the architectural department in 1995. In 2005, she established her own company, becoming a master builder who delivers turnkey projects to clients and subcontracting to fellow architects and designers. Besides her contracting and design services, she also launched Gush, a furniture and lighting company, in 2011. Sadany admits it was hard to find workers — who generally aren’t used to being bossed around by a woman, especially a younger one. Still she believes we have some of the best craftsmanship locally, and that gaining their respect and trust is easy with a little confidence. “You have to have some sort of presence
on site.” And to do so, she adds, she needs to always be on top of her game “You have to master your tools, know your work very well, treat the workers with respect and they will respect you back,” she says. Sadany, her craftsmen and her workers are now in perfect harmony, having spent hours and hours working together on site. They’ve lost count of the times Sadany has rolled up her sleeves, gathered up a brush and paint and climbed a ladder to get just the right shade. “Now they can’t wait for my next crazy idea” she says. “On site I am treated like an older sister. I am their backbone, I support my men, they are my crew, my team. They know I know the job and the details and if I don’t, I ask. I am never too embarrassed to learn.”
The Designer Sadany’s own contracting expertise has not cannibalized the artsy designer in her. She doesn’t believe in the commercialization of design and architecture, has a strong opinion about Egypt’s architectural identity — or lack of one, really — and a strong passion for experimenting with wood, paints and brushes. As an interior designer, her process starts with a friendly chat over coffee to get to know her clients, their lifestyle, what they like and are comfortable with and what they expect of the house. Having studied psychology, she dedicates time
to really pin down the personality of her clients and gives them a psychology test so she can design something they are comfortable living in. “I can’t do a conservative design for people who are funky and fresh. Maybe they will like it at first, but they won’t feel comfortable with it later,” she explains. Instead, Sadany believes her work needs to reflect the client’s personality and the living spaces she designs can’t look alike. “I design homes, not houses; a refuge,” she adds. Her design persona is eclectic with a passion for contemporary. She doesn’t believe in sticking to one design style and loves fusion, altering styles to suit her clients’ tastes. This year Sadany was voted one of the 53 winners at the A’ Design Furniture, Homeware and Décor Items Design competition held in Italy, which saw over 4,000 contestants from 140 countries competing in 80 design categories. Her winning entry was a table inspired by a very Egyptian icon: the babour (a local version of a primus stove that was very popular during the last century). She got the idea for the Babour Dawar Table after sharing a glass of tea with her workers on a construction site. The tea was boiled on a babour and she was instantly inspired by the historical and folkloric heritage the item presented, as well as the proportions and design of the handy little cooker. “The concept that every item in our lives, even an outdated kitchen appliance, can have beauty in it if seen from an artseeking eye,” inspired Sadany to take an old Egyptian household icon and make it into a trendy, yet authentic and characteristically Egyptian piece of furniture. The piece, which took about 10 months to design, was handcrafted in Old Cairo and the wood was given veneer polish or lacquered paint to put a contemporary, hip twist to the design. The design not only aimed to pay tribute to our culture, but it also served as proof against the prevail-
After earning her workers’ respect, Sadany says they treat her like an older sister.
The Wife Long hours, construction sites and dozens of workers who might not be too happy to follow a woman’s orders would likely test the patience of any husband, but Sadany says her husband, who is half Egyptian, half British, is her biggest supporter. “He is fine with the long hours of work and the hectic lifestyle, I couldn’t have done it without him,” she says. Together with her partner for six years, Sadany says her husband has become her “personal assistant” in a way. An investment banker, “he’s the brains, I am the listener,” Sadany says with a laugh as she explains how he’s always involved in her work and helps her brainstorm. Her husband, she adds, has even developed an eye for design: when they go out for dinner, it isn’t just Sadany checking out the surroundings and shredding the design elements to pieces, her husband now enthusiastically chips in too.
these very rich eras and civilizations and motifs you’re supposed to end up with something magnificently brilliant. We ended up with nothing.” Hence came “The Face of Egypt” project that Sadany pioneered with 10 of the nation’s most established professors to solve the problem of architecture in Egypt and submit to the government. The mismatch of buildings has become an eyesore, which Sadany believes is affecting the psychology of citizens who are subjected to stressinducing streets on a daily basis. Having a unified architecture identity isn’t a luxury, Sadany argues, “architecture is the mirror of civilizations.” The initiative aims to channel some of the tax money into not only imple-
menting strict rules for building facades, tearing down or putting up signs, extensions or even trees, but also into funding strong district councils able to implement and monitor codes and violations, as well as provide parking lots and pedestrian areas. “It is a revolutionary project, but it has to start somewhere,” she believes. “The problem is that we don’t follow systems. We break rules, and it is chaos, and this is what happened to architecture in Egypt.” Next on Sadany’s philanthropy checklist is to form a committee for women in her field, the entrepreneurs, the designers and the architects, and to connect them with each other as well as with others abroad. et
Hayssam Samir/Egypt Today
ing stereotype about Egyptian craftsmen. Egyptian workers can be skillful, precise and dedicated with the right guidance.
The Philanthropist Believing in the potential of Egyptian workers and that machinery and mass production as well as a craze for college education have led to the deterioration of craftsmanship in Egypt, Sadany recently started up workshops led by master craftsmen to teach younger workers the secrets of their trades. “If workers today, with all the revolutionary technology, can’t recreate [a 200-year-old building] because it is too expensive to do it by hand, then we’ve deteriorated. To fight the commercialization of the industry and preserve Egyptian craftsmanship and design character, 70- and 80-year-old craftsmen need to pass down their wisdom to younger ones and tutor them on handicrafts that they should be proud of.” A pet peeve of Sadany’s, and one of the reasons she got into architecture to begin with, is the lack of an architectural identity in Egypt. “Egypt is a big bowl of salad, it is a collage of lots of civilizations,” she says. “The problem is when you have all
The Expert T
he advice she gives young designers is simple: Get inspiration from everything and anything, even the color palette of a woman’s make up. “Walk around with a camera, start up your own library. There is a library in every one of us; we grasp what we like. Document it if you can, and keep your senses open,” Sadany advise. “And always be alert to things, even the ones that aren’t obvious.” December 2012