Saturday May 18th, 2024
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Inside Interior Designer Emma James’ Eclectic Cairo Home

Moments and mementos in spaces hand-painted in colours inspired by family and are as calming as the river Nile.

Karim Abdullatif

Inside Interior Designer Emma James’ Eclectic Cairo Home

While Interior designer Emma James is renowned for her tasteful input in design projects spanning the world, and in Egypt as the Creative Director of Cairo’s renowned Eklego Design Studio alongside the studio’s lead and founder Dina El Khachab, James’ latest endeavour takes us on a journey through her own personal sanctuary in the heart of the capital.

With a spirit of experimentation and a dash of whimsy, James transformed her humble abode into a canvas of self-expression, infusing each corner with layers of texture and colour. From hand-painted walls to curated treasures from her travels, every detail speaks to James’ eclectic aesthetic, the pursuit of beauty and keen eye for design.James was born to a family of artists, architects, and designers. Raised in Cairo and educated in London, she has worked for prestigious firms such as Nicky Haslam Design, Katherine Newman Design and Colette van den Thillart Design, with projects all over the world from New York penthouses to crumbling English castles.James’ inspirations are drawn from diverse origins, historical and contemporary, local and remote. The results are always imaginative spaces with a collected, whimsical, and soulful spirit driven by her poetic attention to the nuances of everyday life.

“I lived in this apartment for approximately 10 months. It’s the first place that I made home and settled in,” James tells SceneHome. Initially, she had planned to stay here for at least two years. “I painted the walls myself, experimenting with different washes. The Entrance has an Eau de Nil hue, watered down with vertical ragging and the Dining Room’s hue was inspired by my mother’s Auburn hair,” she says.James applied a textured finish in the dining, with only one coat of paint, intentionally chunky with the original colour beneath revealed somewhat. A brittle brush was used to allow for those textures. Eau de Nil, a light blue/green that’s very tricky to pin down, calms the entrance. James worked with Tanis textiles on custom colours for the fabrics used in the space to match the paint colours.“The flat was far from finished but it was a celebration of all the things I love about Egypt. There’s much symbolism,” James continues. “Mementos and pieces of my life from all over the world. Inherited, collected, gifted. There are things you find and things that find you.” James moved back to Cairo two and a half years ago. It was a big move after spending 13 years abroad. “When I first moved back I wasn’t sure how it would go. But by the time I moved into this space, a year and a half later, I felt a lot more grounded and wanted to make home. This apartment was me really committing to being in Cairo and laying down roots.”The entrance introduces Emma’s eclecticism. A palm tree floor lamp was found at a Saturday market with verdigris finish that date back to, she guesses the 1990s. Alongside it on the table is an Aphrodite hand blown glass lamp. Behind, on the wall, there’s a Manet-inspired painting by James’s grandfather and the scarf of palm motifs framed in the centre is a vintage Christian Dior sourced at a thrift store in Toronto and framed in Cairo. The hat under the chair on the right is a Laura Ashley from the ‘80s, and two chairs host a Thebes pillow from Katie Leede’s Egyptian collection on the left and a charming John Derian pillow on the right that features a beautiful spectrum of colour, illustrated with handwritten colour names. “I had just found this Kilim at a garage sale. And in fact on shoot day it was by the door to be sent to be cleaned…it ended up being a hero of the shot, it has such character, you can feel it’s from the ‘70s, particularly through the palette and a cheeky detail in the patterning she says of the carpet that completes the scene.

Leading to the dining room, lithographs by David R. A. Roberts from a collection entitled ‘Cairo Portfolio’ presents 19th-century Cairo in print frame the mirrored folding doors. On one side, a Chintamani motif printed on a linen curtain and palm tree motifs on the opposite end leading to a hallway through an arch.“One of the things I have loved and always loved about all the Cairo apartments of both my childhood and adulthood, is that without fail, there is always, much to my delight, somewhere an arch squirrelled in”, she says. Fayoumi pottery is dotted on walls and surfaces, with a one-armed marble statue standing on the right, a gift from James’s neighbour sourced from ‘Souk El Gomaa’. “I’m obsessed with using and layering local materials” she says, entering the dining room, which continues her amalgamation of inspiration.

The screen at the back adds a Syrian aesthetic. The ‘Three Graces’, the daughters of Zeus, preside over the dining room as they would banquets and heavenly gatherings, exuding youth, beauty, and elegance, and on the right, a ‘Key of Life’ Khayamiyah adds ancient Egypt into the menu. Malaika Linens’ Sultana tablecloth dresses the dining table with Zulu’s handmade chandelier hovering above. “A Rebel Cairo scarf sits beneath a custom chintz pillow edged in chestnut silk velvet ruffle,” James adds. “A matching pair of trousers I do possess.”

Meanwhile, in the bedroom, the walls are covered with a textured plaster pink, created with a small paintbrush and circular movement. “It was my own experimentation with finishes,” James says. “After doing this myself, I can direct our painters to recreate these finishes for clients. In a way, I was the guinea pig. I was the one that was going to live with it. It was laborious but also therapeutic.”

As seen in James’s spaces, paint transforms the space. People usually think that it’s a big commitment but it makes the space feel more layered and textured, and contrary to common belief, “it’s the easiest thing to change if you don’t love it anymore,” James says. An embroidered pillow from Malaika Linen rests atop ‘Akhmim’ textile from a city known for keeping ancient weaving tradition alive. The headboard was an Indian tablecloth James had brought from Canada.

The living room features one of the few openings in the apartment. Hence, greenery was placed indoors to connect with the tree outside in order to accentuate the window. A Cairo Antiques bamboo desk neighbours a pouff from Eklego’s Mogue collection which was collaborated on with fashion designer Amina K. “When you’re decorating for other people, sometimes the space ends up feeling sparse but here even when Yehia was photographing, he asked if I would perhaps remove a few things” James says of Yehia El Alaily, the renowned photographer behind the images of her home.

When a friend of James’s, Ramzi Makram Ebeid - a stellar designer in his own right - learned that she was moving out, he asked Yehia to see the space. The photographs ended up being a warm farewell to a home that was short-lived.

“Emma cares a lot about materials and textiles, using a multitude of layers which isn’t commonly found in other homes,” El Alaily tells SceneHome. “Homes reflect their owners and here you can see Emma clearly. The home is alive. I enter a lot of living spaces and it’s rare when you can feel the spirit of the person behind it. When I entered it felt warm and made me feel at ease. Her personality is evident.”

Although the space was never finished, the photographs demonstrate what someone with a great eye for design can do by just picking up the paintbrush and rolling up their sleeves. “A wise woman once told me, ‘When living in Cairo, if you have no fight in you, better stay home and start another day.’ I think she might be right and all the more reason for our spaces to be a respite from the world. Places to inspire and nurture us so we can get on with living life to the fullest… both in and out of them.”

If there’s any takeaway from this incredible artist’s abode, then it’s the example of making a space your own, even if it’s a rental. You might not make major changes like the flooring or structure, but you can mask and distract from the imperfections. With layering, the eye is left to wander around the room.

“Layers warm the space and distract you from details you wouldn’t typically adjust because of the fact that it’s a rental,” she says. James did it for the process and not the result. Making peace with your space is good. If you nurture it, it nurtures you back.

Photography Credit: Yehia El Alaily


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