Delve into the uncharted history of book covers from the Arab world

We speak to Egyptian designer and researcher Mahmoud el Hossieny about his mission to share the Arab world’s rich design history with the wider world via his Arabic Book Cover Archive project

As far as lockdown passion projects go, Moe Elhossieny’s latest venture is particularly impressive. The Cairo-based designer, researcher and writer has been working alongside volunteer researcher Nourhan El Banna, also based in Egypt, and assistant researchers Omayma Dajani (Palestine) and Yaman To’meh (Lebanon) to create the first digital archive for Arabic book cover designs published between the 1950s and 1990s.

Titled the Arabic Book Cover Archive, the project forms one part of the wider work being carried out by Elhossieny’s Design Repository مستودع التصميم organisation, which aims to make Middle Eastern aesthetics a part of the global discussion on design. Here, he tells CR about his motivations and aspirations for the project.

The Coward Prince by Jacob Al Sharoni, 1983. Designer: Helmi Eltuni; Publisher: Al Shrouk

Creative Review: Tell us about your background and how you got into design.
Moe Elhossieny: I studied fine and graphic arts and graduated with a BA from the faculty of fine arts in Egypt back in 2009. Back then, design did not stand as its own field and practice, it was either you do art or advertising. After doing that for a while, I knew that advertising is not what I want to be doing, not long term at least so I enrolled at Central Saint Martins’ Graphic Communication Design course.

I fell in love with writing and research during my studies at CSM. I finished and worked in London for a little while before deciding I wanted to go back to Cairo in 2018. I joined a local company that had a great team, and I was appointed as experience and design director there.

And the Show Continues by Mohamed Mezari, 1991. Designer: Mohieddin Ellabbad; Publisher: Arab Falcon

CR: How did the idea for the Arabic Book Cover Archive come about?
ME: In parallel to starting my job, I got into a habit of going on walks around the city on weekends. On these walks, I would pass by second-hand street book markets. The markets mostly had really old books with vivid colours and screaming typographic treatments, which was fascinating to me. As my interest in Arabic design started growing, I was seeking a bigger question of identity that could shape my practice. I started asking very obvious and basic questions, like is there a book about the history of Arabic book cover designs? Is there anyone documenting, writing, or archiving these beautiful books? Over time, I have come to realise that the answer is no.

I started aimlessly collecting these books and scanning them, and in February this year I decided to resign from work and start my own space called Design Repository مستودع التصميم to publish writings on design and visual culture. The space will also encourage research projects on design. There are a few of them at the moment, and the Arabic Book Cover Archive is one of them.

The Chase by Said Ali, 1991. Designer: Mohieddin Ellabbad; Publisher: Arab Falcon

CR: Why don’t you think an archive like this existed before?
ME: There are many reasons for why it did not exist before, some I don’t know, but I have made some observations in Egypt. One of the things I observed is that the physical archives are often inaccessible and in some instances, non-existent. The same goes for research facilities and most sources of information generally. Most researchers usually feel intimidated and discouraged by the stiffness of the process, constant scepticism, and the unjustified refusal to cooperate which is the state of most public institutions. If you add to that the exclusivity of private archives of international educational institutions that are serving very few people, it makes them feel alienated and demotivated.

The same applies to publishing, where the whole sector has grown old and weary, and there is very little competition of any sort and very few independent publishing houses. Over time book designs have become saturated and feel very similar, so more and more people stopped noticing it altogether. Only when you juxtapose the old and new you can see the difference and realise we had some sort of design, but now we just have computers.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Designer: Gamal Kotb; Publisher: National Printing and Publishing House

CR: What has the process been like and what have you learned so far?
ME: We are currently still in phase one, which is to collect, so we have not yet gone through a process of close examination of the material, but some things have spoke to me. For example, I realised that we have a knowledge gap in our regional history of modern design and the cause of the gap is not necessarily the lack of content, but more the lack of practices to do with preservation, documentation, and dissemination of knowledge. This prevents knowledge of Arabic design to be accumulative and facilitates it being fractal and grants it a tendency to duplicate itself.

I have learned that we have more book designers, illustrators, and artists than I thought we had. Some of them have very strong unique styles, approaches, and philosophies. I have also started to see the general defining characteristics of each era with some common traits that influenced the general stylistic and conceptual practice. I have also realised that most of these people are under-appreciated and overlooked even from the field itself. The archive will aim to highlight their work and help bring them forward so that students, scholars, writers, and researchers can take interest in them.

The Wonder Well by Jacob Al Sharoni, 1983. Designer: Helmi Eltuni; Publisher: Al Shrouk

CR: What are your hopes for the Design Repository longer term?
ME: Right now, Design Repository مستودع التصميم aims to be a design knowledge production space that is community-based. The space will encourage the assembly, production, accumulation, and dissemination of this knowledge. Right now, how design functions in the social structure is dominated only by market demand, which both limits and over-simplifies what design can do.

Universities happily help produce new waves of designers that fit that mould and conform to the market demand. I feel we need a new or alternative narrative of what design is, what role it has in our society. We are creating a new centre for design to decentralise the field as it stands now.

A Golden Map by Amar Salman, 1991. Designer: Mohieddin Ellabbad; Publisher: Arab Falcon

Arabic Book Cover Archive is supported by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia Cairo; @arabicbookcoverarchive

A note from the Arabic Book Cover Archive: We are conducting this research to serve as educational material for others and we are not claiming copyright over any of the designs. This right is reserved for each publishing house and the designer of the work. We will not support the reproduction of this material for any commercial use without legally obtaining copyright