We dive into a new archive of over 1,000 book covers from the Arab world
Egyptian designer Moe Elhossieny talks us through why he launched his Design Repository and what he’s already learned about Arabic book design from the collection.
- Matt Alagiah
- 2 October 2020
Moe Elhossieny moved back to his native Cairo in 2018 after completing a master’s degree in Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins in London. During the week he worked for a local creative digital marketing and advertising company, but on the weekends, he picked up a new hobby. “I started a habit of going on walks around the city on weekends,” he says. “On these walks, I would pass by second-hand street book markets, which I have always known and loved. The markets were the kind of place where you go in and you lose your sense of place, it’s a little magical.”
In these markets he came across really old books “with vivid colours and screaming typographic treatments,” he says, “which was fascinating to me.” He didn’t get the same feeling walking into a high-street bookshop, where he found the books “too digital, too computerised, and devoid of identity”.
Diving into these markets more regularly and enjoying the rich visual stimulation of these environments, Moe became increasingly hungry for knowledge. “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 about or archiving these beautiful books?’” He quickly realised that the simple answer was no.
So, Moe decided to start collecting books and scanning them. “It became a religious activity for me to go for these walks,” he says. In February of this year, with a global pandemic on the horizon, he quit his stable job (to the dismay of some of his friends) to focus on “the things I like the most and enjoy doing,” as he puts it. Having fallen in love with research and writing while at CSM, he started his own venture called Design Repository, for publishing writings about design and visual culture. The Arabic book cover design archive is one of the venture’s first initiatives.
Even though it is early days for the archive, Moe and his team – which currently comprises volunteer researchers Omayma Dajani (based in Palestine), Yaman To’meh (in Lebanon) and Nourhan El Banna (also in Egypt) – have already collected and archived around 1,000 covers. They source these by speaking directly to street booksellers, designers and artists, publishers, private individuals with big book collections, and by asking for submissions over Instagram. Their aim is to build the archive to 5,000 book covers. “This number will provide a good starting point and a substantial foundation for patterns to emerge, styles and methods to be identified, and relationships to start forming,” says Moe.
One of his favourite book covers discovered so far is the one designed by Mohieddin Ellabbad for the 1991 book And the Show Continues by Mohamed Mezari, published by Arab Falcon for publishing. “When I first saw this, not knowing the content of the book, it gave me a feeling of radicalism and provocation,” says Moe. “The more I looked at it, I started seeing a great resemblance between this and Banksy’s stencils. This was first published in 1991, which was roughly around the time that Banksy started his career. Could it have been an inspiration? Maybe.”
Despite the relative newness of his venture, the founder is already learning a lot about the history of design in the Arab world. “As I dived into the research process and saw how hard and challenging it is in Egypt, I started to understand some of the reasons that have led to this knowledge vacuum, why there isn’t much research going on in this area or writing about this domain,” he says. “The cause of the ‘gap’ is not necessarily the lack of content, but more the lack of practices that has to do with preservation, documentation and dissemination of knowledge; the scarcity of research, writing, publishing and archiving.”
This, he says, is why knowledge of Arabic design is often incomplete. This also then feeds into the education system and curriculum. “Currently what is happening is that most design programs are western-based and focused,” Moe explains. “And in the absence of real Arabic design knowledge, these courses are relying on the foundations of western design practices.” He hopes that his project will eventually provide an accessible resource to counter this western-centric view of design, and in time, his platform will also publish articles and opinion pieces on Arabic design.
One thing is for sure – the talent he has uncovered is remarkable. “I have learned that we have more book designers, illustrators and artists than I knew,” he says. “Some of them had very strong unique styles, approaches and philosophies. However, sadly, most of them are under-appreciated and overlooked. The archive will aim to also 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, Designer: Helmi Eltuni, Publisher: Al Shrouk, 1983
With the support of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia Cairo
A note from the Arabic Book Cover Archive and It’s Nice That: We are conducting this research to serve as educational material for others and we are not claiming copyrights 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 copyrights.
Moe Elhossieny also wishes to thank the book contributors who are helping to bring this archive together.
About the Author
Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.