Adding some spice to their design related majors, Karem Mahmoud and Islam El-Kateb took the venture to kick off ‘Zen’: A brand specializing in high-end luxury furnishings. Having to overcome turbulences and keep the faith, they told us all about their success journey.
Tell us about yourself, what you do and how you got started.
Karem: I’m an interior designer. At the beginning, I started in several interior fields. I, also, have an experienced background in marble and painting industries, and in furniture manufacturing as well. My partner, Islam El-kateb, was the main encouragement to this project; combining his knowledge of interior design with my experience in the manufacturing field made our work unique with quality.
Islam: I’m a graduate of fine arts with a major in architecture. Before starting Zen, I worked in the field of interior design and furniture. I always knew I wanted to start something on my own. During that time, the market was very helpful and eye opening for my future work.
What was the hardest part of your journey so far? How have you overcome it?
Karem: I opened my first gallery in Zamalek in a main area that combines a lot of our competitors in the market. It was an issue at the beginning because we weren’t well known. But we’ve overcome this with our unique designs that you won’t find anywhere, as well as our good guaranteed quality.
Islam: In 2011, I finally took the plunge together with my friend and business partner Karem Mahmoud and we kicked off Zen. This was a tough time to start a new business with all the political turmoil. Nevertheless, we had the vision and the faith that things will eventually get on track. We were setting up the gallery in the middle of the curfew and a lot of our friends were leaving the country, the market was taking a setback, as well, as the overall psychological atmosphere. That was the hardest thing we had to face. But we also knew this was the best time to start, get Zen on its feet and booming. We were determined to become a leading interior and furniture design brand in Egypt and that perseverance paid off.
What motivates and drives you?
Karem: My love and passion for artwork is what keeps me going, but I also have to say that our clients’ excellent feedback is the greatest motivation for us to keep it up.
Islam: My core drive is my willingness to help people. I got that from my father, who is my most important source of inspiration. He was a brilliant architect and a devoted Sufi. He taught me love and beauty, showed me through action and through his work what these concepts meant, taught me to appreciate these things and live by them. His art and talent were his tools to serve people. He always said we don’t really do anything ourselves, but life puts tools in our hands so we can help others, be it through art, science, or anything else. I always work with that idea in mind, that my work and designs should offer both comfort and convenience. They should be a way to make people’s lives better by fulfilling their needs, bringing harmony to their surroundings, reflecting their essence and radiate a positive vibe. I am very found of the concept of Feng Shui, working with energy flows and creating fine tuned spaces. This is where the name of our company comes from too. What we seek is not just creating a beautiful space but mostly a state of wellbeing.
Would you consider yourself a risk taker?
Karem: BIG TIME. No risk No fun.
Islam: Definitely risk takers, both Karem and me. At the core, our temperaments are very similar. Even though, we express them differently. We both get a kick from challenges, the unknown, testing our limits, discovery.
Were there any books that motivated you?
Karem: 40 Rules of Love.
Islam: My biggest motivation is my father’s legacy and values.
Do you think your mindset has been a key to your success?
Karem: It’s all from the heart directed by the mind.
Islam: My mindset puts spirituality at the forefront of what I do, how I do it and what I seek. I mean spirituality in its universal form, regardless of creed. I want to create interiors that enhance the spiritual experience, because I believe it is a basic need we all have no matter how we name it. Light, colors, and lines can be powerful tools to inspire, appease and create harmony. In that sense, a rightly made interior creates the perfect vibe and energy, and that changes everything.
What would you say are the key elements to starting a successful business/leading a successful career path?
Karem: Passion, commitment and determination.
Islam: I believe the key element to success is passion, backed up by perseverance and good listening skills. For me, each design is a cause because I help the client to achieve a better life for them and their kids, and their aspiration becomes mine. I believe in it as much as they do and I also believe in my ability to help them achieve that. Here comes the listening part. Understanding the clients’ needs and personality is key. Different interiors reflect different preferences and mindsets. For example, if a client is an avid reader, then the reading corner might be the most important part of the house for them, the anchor that sets the tone and direction of the work. The interior should be the emotional reflection of its owner, bring serenity in a way that nothing interferes with their peace of mind.
What/who inspires you?
Karem: Meditation in Sinai desert.
Islam: If I want to design, I always look at smaller parts around me, in nature. The most beautiful designs come from creatures like butterflies, mountains, microphotography, and shapes of animals, people’s morphology. Nature is the most inspiring, its lines, its color combinations, and its elements.
How do you deal with a bad day at work?
Karem: There’s nothing called a bad day at work; any obstacle we face is a learnt lesson for tomorrow.
Islam: Space, silence and introspection. I need to take some time away to reflect on what went wrong, calm down and try to understand where the problem came from and how best to address it. I take it as a warning sign that some things need to be fixed then act accordingly.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Karem: Meditation and drawing
Islam: Meditating, spending time with family and friends, and traveling.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who’s starting out in the field, what would it be?
Karem: Be unique, not commercial.
Islam: Love what you do, pour your heart into it, fully.
What’s your next big step?
Karem: To be the first Egyptian to display his Work in Salone Del Mobile Milano with our unique Egyptian made products.
Islam: Take the Zen concept globally. My goal is to increase people’s awareness of the importance of design. It’s crucial role in our wellbeing and how it should reflect the personality and increase harmony.