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Hani Mahfouz: The Accidental Artist

His notebooks have become a staple of every household, but becoming one of the biggest names in graphic design in Egypt was no simple feat, and for a long time trial and error was the name of the game.

It happened almost overnight that Hani Mahfouz became a household name, but since then Hani Mahfouz Designs (HMD) has become one of the most recognisable Egyptian brands on the market. But it's been a long trip to get to where he is now, and Hani Mahfouz's path towards becoming the benchmark name in Egypt's graphic design industry wasn't the smoothest or most predictable.

For one, Mahfouz studied Interior Design in the College of Fine Arts, and did so almost as a contingency plan. "I discovered that I liked drawing while I was in university, almost by accident," he tells us. "I mean, I graduated from high school with 67%, and so my options were limited. I figured, I know how to draw and I'm not really up for taking on commerce. I was basically just trying to escape from studying commerce by studying art."

"The turning point came in my second year. I don't really know why… Sometimes you can do something continuously and there'll be no heart in it, and then all of a sudden you discover that you really enjoy doing it, and so you start improving and doing better and it evolves from there. It evolved to the point where I couldn't imagine doing anything that isn't related to art anymore," he adds.

Even after graduating, he fell into his first job in graphic design almost entirely by accident. Having completed his undergraduate studies, and with five days left of his army service, Mahfouz would stumble into his first role a small advertising company. "Essentially, this job determined my fate," he says. He would then go on for a few years after he graduated working the odd graphic design job under different companies. But his turning point came approximately six years after university. Having taken up a part time job at a firm, he had also begun doing his own freelance work, and at that point decided it was the time for him to have his own space.

"I used to earn 1,500 EGP and worked three days a week. When I took this job, I figured I now had four free days per week, and I had a salary, so I could get more freelance work," he says. "So from that 1500 EGP I was getting, I spent 800 EGP renting office space, and 200 EGP for the guy who makes tea and coffee, and I hired an assistant to help me for 500 EGP. So that was my 1500 EGP salary."

Thus was the beginning of what would become the now distinguished HMD brand. Slowly but surely he began to garner footing as a freelancer but it wasn't until 2002 that the game really changed for him. And once again, it was almost completely an accident.

"I started the notebook brand in 2002. The idea was a lot more naive than it might seem. I used to work, and back then Ramadan would always come at the end of the year, so by that time work would die down. I would have nothing to do. So in 2002 I decided to create a set of notebooks, planners and calendars, and I put them in a bag with the same design and sent them to the people I was working with, in the hope that I would get orders for the same kinds of notebooks."

What essentially began as a scheme to boost business would become the trademark of his brand, and after the largely unexpected success of the stationery, Mahfouz made a shift in plan, and began selling his notebooks straight to bookstores like Diwan, instead of distributing them for free. From what started off essentially as a latch-ditch attempt, the brand would only grow, and along with it, so would the business. 

But it's not always smooth-sailing for the creative mind behind the designs, and at times Mahfouz finds it difficult to balance between the business aspect of his work, and the creative part. "The company's creative energy expires at times. The problem is when you want to work in a creative field, and then you add the administrative aspect of it - things like signing cheques and following up on financial matters takes up such a big chunk of your energy, it almost drains you, so I begin to feel creatively crippled," he says.

"You find that when you like drawing and creativity and design that you need an escape. So these drawings essentially become my small space to breathe and play around with." But despite these lapses in creative energy, Hani Mahfouz's brand has never lost its unique edge, and his designs never fail to be fresh and dynamic, always permeated by a sense of spontaneity. "The thing about art is, it's like fashion. If you try replicating it you'll always stay behind. You can spend years trying to please everyone else and get nowhere. In the end, all you can do is to cling to yourself."

And it's that sense of self that governs the aesthetic behind the designs, even when the corporate side of the work is getting him down. Rather than remain bogged down by it, Mahfouz seems to always be willing and capable to revive that creative spirit for every new collection. "Before you start doing something because you love it, you need to discover yourself and what it is that you love first. I discovered that I love design that always has the element of human error. I don't like the "undo" option in design. When I'm drawing, I like the drawings that have the little mistakes in them, and the sense of what's real," he says.

"And whenever you're working on something you enjoy, there's probably always going to be a part of yourself in it, and that's likely to be the common element between my designs; my own self."

As for the future, Mahfouz remains optimistic. At 49, he has an overwhelming sense of youth about him, and jokes about how he never really felt as though he was running a business, and has major doubts as to whether anything he has done can really be described as success. Branching out into fashion may just be the next step for the designer; Mahfouz tells us he is playing with the idea transferring his designs into bags using the traditional Egyptian khayameyah craft. But this is just one of the ideas that he seems to be brimming with for the future, and in his haphazard world of near-accidental success he has faith that the next few years will only be more lucrative for him, both creatively and professionally.

See more of Hani Mahfouz's designs here.
Photography by Mahmoud Asfour.