Designing your life: Noha Essam compounds arts & architecture, gaining worldwide recognition

Nehal Samir
13 Min Read

Throughout history, women have proved themselves as talented interior designers and architects in a male-dominated career. Noha Essam, a professor of interior architecture and interdisciplinary design, is one of those successful women in this challenging field.

Essam is an award winning academic, and a member of the World Design Organization (WDO). She is also a creative trends consultant and environmental psychologist. She has received two prestigious awards in 2021, including the International CA Accolade for Design Academics 2021 and the Leadership Accolade from WDO in a design challenge organized in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

She works at the German University in Cairo (GUC), and is a postdoc associate at the London South Bank University. Essam is currently leading BA Researches that focus on attaining SDGs at the GUC.

She received her Ph.D. from Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, in addition to two Masters from M.Sc. Environmental Psychology from St. Lawrence College, Canada and M.A. interior architecture, Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, Egypt.

She is the founder of Studio ne+ (Foresight Research based Design Platform). She created the “Be Transformed” Initiative to bridge the gap between education and creative industries. Essam’s researches develop better understandings of the relations between art and design education, and the creative industry. Her research focuses on the interdisciplinary studies of future literacy of design education, environmental psychology and attaining SDGs through design education and trends forecasting.

Essam has over 14 years of experience in interior architecture, design consultancy, and business development from working in several firms in Egypt and Canada. Essam’s consultancy practices side to side with her academic background enhances the language of creativity in the design community.

Through her passion for sensory design, behavioural responses, and trend forecasting techniques that is based on human experience and the reflection of users’ needs, Essam focused on linking the scientific research methodology of design, typological studies, art-based communication tools with practical practices to design and consult for companies, corporates and brands in order to add value to the creative industry and design education. Her crossover of passions, as well as her methodology, informs her work and creates brilliant and inspiring end results. She positively influences younger generations of designers through her work and research.

She was shortlisted for Best Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Thesis among Middle East universities for the topic of “Phobia of Spaces” for the year 2018, and she has many international publications in interdisciplinary studies.

Essam works also as exhibition designer and participates in many group and solo exhibitions in Egypt and abroad.

Her fusion of experiencing multidisciplinary study areas and diverse perspectives was a process of unravelling of potentials and giving free play to her creative mind while considering the practical human experience that are at the core of her approach.

Daily News Egypt interviewed Essam to know more about her career, challenges, awards, exhibitions, in addition to her initiative “Be Transformed”.

Congratulations on being selected to join WDO. Can you elaborate on this selection?

WDO invited professional design academics to work in a new design challenge partnered with the World Packaging Organization (WPO) in cooperation with UNDP.

I applied as a professional academic educator of interdisciplinary design. The selection was based on the specialized publication and expertise in the field of sustainable design, and attaining SDGs through design education.

I was working in partnership with both organizations in the design challenge and initiative that works in alignment with the United Nations Development Programme – UNDP-UN SDG 12 that focuses on responsible consumption and production; including food waste and safety, sustainable packaging, circularity and education to help spur meaningful change at both the individual and industry level.

My contribution comprised a strategy of sharing research findings, developing new ideas and solutions where design can play a role in tackling different problems of consumption and product life cycle.

Have you faced any obstacles at the beginning of your career? How do you balance between your personal life and your career?

I faced time management problems, as I had to balance between my commercial design work and academic career. It was hectic at the beginning because I wanted to expand in interdisciplinary fields, like psychology and interior architecture, project management, visual arts, and so on. Gradually, I handled that problem, and I also realized that I gained huge knowledge and experience from all disciplines I approached.

Can you elaborate on the “Be Transformed” Initiative?

Led by passion for design, ideation, and a schematized vision, I established the initiative to inspire everyone during the lockdown period due to COVID-19 pandemic. A group of senior students were engaged in this initiative and were willing to present their work through the course of “Forecasting Interior Design Trends” that is based on foresight, typological studies, conceptual researches and art-based visual thinking. I was looking forward to creating a design platform for the whole design community and stakeholders. Spreading positive vibes and raising the spirit of senior students (class 2020) through introducing their hard work in the age of quarantine, leveraging a competitive spirit among senior students through finding a meaningful comparison for a trend industry benchmark and its life cycle across customers’ live substantive responses. Scoping possible shifts and transformation related to our inner and outer selves, culture, business progression and production through a schematized vision driven by the motto of “Be Transformed”.

What are the exhibitions that you participated in as an independent visual artist and exhibition designer?

Through my paintings, I try to embody mixed meanings and emotional expressions that symbolize the reality of life and the struggles of the human soul in a simplified manner. I tend to adopt symbolic design through expressive textures, colours and symbolic elements. I strive to translate real life into timeless symbolism that goes beyond mere decoration to discover a mixture of humanist and mystic sensibilities. I participated in several group and solo exhibitions. My artwork has been exhibited in exhibitions in Egypt and abroad, including shows at the Youth salon, TAM Gallery, Galleria 40, ABNG’S and Noqoush/el Kahila in Cairo, Caravanserai, Eklego, and Razzmatazz showroom. Some of my artwork has been acquired by the Faculty of Fine Arts Museum in Cairo, in addition to private collections in Dubai, USA, Turkey, Canada and Spain.

You were shortlisted for Best Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Thesis among Middle East universities. What was the topic of your Ph.D.?

The topic of the thesis was related to the role of interior architecture design in reducing the phobia of non-residential spaces. My colleagues praised the topic, which has not been addressed by specialists in architecture and design. Some tried to dissuade me from the idea, but I was determined to continue my study of this subject, which I was actually interested in, even before I graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts. My research was directed to an in-depth study in psychology that aimed at the genesis of fear, the causes of phobic disorders in individuals, and the influence of the surrounding environment and places on stimulating the causes of phobias.

It was clear from my study that every human being must have two or more phobias of places, which were divided into four thousand types of phobias of places listed in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, phobia of closed, open, crowded places, and phobia of bridges and tunnels. In the study, I was exposed to unfamiliar phobias such as tree phobia, glass phobia, stone phobia, lighting phobia and holes. The thesis was shortlisted as the best interdisciplinary doctoral thesis (interdisciplinary) among Middle Eastern universities for the year 2018.

What are the other awards that you received?

Recently I have received the accolade of Cumulus Association as I was selected among design academics from all around the world to receive the PLUS+ grant of honour of the Cumulus Association/ Finland hosted by Sapienza University of Roma/ School of Architecture and product design as an Egyptian Academic Professor of Interior Architecture and Interdisciplinary Design to contribute in the network of cultural studies and design education at cumulus-cultures Roma 2020. My contribution covers the area of ethnographic research as a catalyst to forecasting design futures.

The PLUS+ grant is offered to only three distinguished academics with outstanding impact in the design education.

How can you evaluate the status of female interior architects nowadays?

Since most of female designer nowadays became aware of the importance of entrepreneurship skills in the field of design, I see this added a great value to the design profession as a whole, and it encouraged lots of female designers who had some fears to start their own business to proceed and be more confident so for sure I see lots of female designers who are very successful as it was never before.

Do you think the interior design field is currently in decline? If yes, why? How did Covid-19 impact this field?

The design scene in Egypt is approaching a paradigm shift, what is really remarkable is the awareness of the magical impact of the set design and the art direction. This was able to be forecasted years ago, followed by a foresighted vision and was really emphasized as design new-normality while ongoing trends are tangible as a reflection to post pandemic challenges.

What is your advice for the newly graduated architects and your students in specific?

I always advise my students to gain practical experience in addition to continuing to learn everything that is new and keep pace with the technology of the times, as I seek to consolidate the thought of the interdisciplinary of design and not to be restricted to the field of specialization, and I also care about developing a strategy of awareness of the importance of interdisciplinary studies that are blended. I also advise the new generation of designers to balance between their personal life and career, and the possibility of entering more than one field at the same time with organization and determination.

What are your goals in the coming period?

I think about what could happen in the next 10 years and this already plays a great role in my forecasting methods and the strategic foresight I do adopt as a reflection. I absolutely aspire to inspire more young designers to value design semantics and understand new aesthetic codes in design so it turns out to be a lifestyle not a career. Also I aspire to have the ability to spread the awareness of the forecast and foresight strategies in design to all young generations of designers.

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