Immerse yourself in the unexplored history of the Arab world’s book covers


When it comes to lockdown passion projects, Moe Elhossieny’s latest venture is particularly impressive. The Cairo-based designer, researcher and writer worked 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 book covers in Arabic. drawings published between the 1950s and 1990s.

Title on Arabic Book Cover Archives, the project is part of the larger work carried out by Elhossieny’s Design repository مستودع التصميم organization, which aims to make Middle Eastern aesthetics part of the global design discussion. Here, he tells CR about his motivations and aspirations for the project.

The Cowardly Prince by Jacob Al Sharoni, 1983. Designer: Helmi Eltuni; Editor: Al Shrouk

Creative Review: Tell us about your background and how you got into design.
Moe Elhossieny: I studied fine arts and graphic arts and got a BA from the Faculty of Fine Arts of Egypt in 2009. At the time, design was not its own field and his own practice was either art or advertising. After doing this for a while, I knew advertising wasn’t what I wanted to do, not long term at least, so I signed up for Central Saint Martins’ Graphic Communication Design course.

I fell in love with writing and research while studying at CSM. I finished and worked in London for a little while before deciding that I wanted to return to Cairo in 2018. I joined a local company that had a great team, and I was appointed Director of Experience and of design.

And The Show Goes On by Mohamed Mezari, 1991. Designer: Mohieddin Ellabbad; Editor: Arab Falcon

CR: How did the idea of ​​the Arabic book cover archives come about?
I: At the same time as I took office, I got into the habit of walking around town on weekends. During these walks, I passed by street flea markets. The markets mostly had very old books with bright colors and garish typographic treatments, which fascinated me. As my interest in Arabic design began to grow, I looked for a bigger question of identity that could shape my practice. I started asking very obvious and basic questions like is there a book on the history of book cover designs in arabic? Is there anyone who documents, writes or archives these beautiful books? Over time, I have come to realize that the answer is no.

I started aimlessly collecting these books and digitizing them, and in February of this year I decided to quit my job and start my own space called Design Repository مستودع التصميم to post design writing and visual culture. The space will also encourage design research projects. There are a few of them right now, and the Arab Book Cover Archive is one of them.

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

CR: Why don’t you think an archive like this existed before?
I: There are several reasons why it didn’t exist before, some I don’t know, but I made some observations in Egypt. One of the things I have observed is that physical archives are often inaccessible and in some cases nonexistent. The same goes for research facilities and most information sources in general. Most researchers generally feel intimidated and disheartened by the rigidity of the process, the constant skepticism and unwarranted refusal to cooperate which is the condition of most public institutions. If you add to that the exclusivity of the private archives of international educational institutions that serve very few people, it makes them alienated and demotivated.

The same is true of publishing, where the whole industry has grown old and worn out, and there is very little competition of any kind and very few independent publishers. Over time, the book designs have become saturated and look a lot alike, so more and more people have completely stopped noticing it. It’s only when you put the old and the new side by side that you can see the difference and realize that we had some kind of design, but now we just have computers.

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

CR: How did the process go and what have you learned so far?
I: We’re currently still in the first phase, which is collecting, so we haven’t gone through a full hardware review process yet, but some things have spoken to me. For example, I realized that we have a lack of knowledge in our regional history of modern design and that the cause of this gap is not necessarily the lack of content, but rather the lack of practices related to preservation, documentation and dissemination of knowledge. This prevents knowledge of Arabic design from being accumulated and facilitates its fractal character and gives it a tendency to duplicate itself.

I’ve learned that we have more book designers, illustrators, and artists than I thought. Some of them have very strong unique styles, approaches and philosophies. I also began to see the general characteristics defining each era with some common traits that influenced general stylistic and conceptual practice. I also realized that most of these people are underestimated and overlooked, even on the pitch itself. The archives will aim to showcase their work and help advance it so that students, academics, writers and researchers can take an interest in it.

The Wonderful Well by Jacob Al Sharoni, 1983. Designer: Helmi Eltuni; Editor: Al Shrouk

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

Universities willingly help produce new waves of designers that fit this mold and conform to market demand. I think we need a new or alternative narrative of what design is, what role it has in our society. We are creating a new design center to decentralize the area as it currently stands.

A Gold Card by Amar Salman, 1991. Designer: Mohieddin Ellabbad; Editor: Arab Falcon

Arabic Book Cover Archive is supported by Swiss Council for Culture 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 do not claim any copyright in 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 commercial purposes without legally obtaining the copyright


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