It's like being on the set of The Big Bang Theory; vintage Superman posters line the walls, nifty gadgets crowd the counter tops and superhero figurines stand to attention on the shelves – Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, Darth Vader, Captain America and, unless I'm mistaken, He-Man, all stare down at me as I make my way across the room.
“My son is very jealous because I buy more toys than he does,” laughs Tamer Khalifa, as he shows us around the quirky design studio that he’s created in his Sharjah home. “I’m a big Marvel Comics fan. It’s a fascinating world, because it doesn’t have any boundaries.”
The obsession with Marvel seems fitting. By day, Khalifa is an aircraft engineer; by night, a freelance furniture designer. At present, his pop-art home accessories are sold by a range of Dubai retailers, including O’de Rose, Objekts of Design, O-Concept, Iris Noir, ValleyDez and, most recently, Interior 360. And the self-taught Khalifa is no respecter of constraints. Much like the characters that crowd his workspace, once he decides to do something, he goes out and gets it done, he says. “The moral of the story is I go for it; I don’t wait for it to come to me.”
This particular tale starts with a simple Nikon camera. “We were living in Saudi. My father used to travel a lot and one day he came back with a very basic Nikon, with normal film. I asked him if I could use it and he said: ‘If you can work out how to use it, you can keep it.’ I was 9 or 10 years old. There was no YouTube at the time, and no real way for me to teach myself, so it was a case of trial and error. I started buying film with my own pocket money and basically just burnt a lot of film.”
Khalifa’s passion for photography grew, but when it came to selecting a university degree, he knew, as a dutiful Arab son, that he had to choose something more practical. He opted for engineering, but used his time at the American University of Cairo to hone his photography skills. “I started asking my friends if I could take pictures of them – some of them were aspiring models, so I would take photos of them and then give them the pictures.”
After his degree, Khalifa returned to Saudi Arabia, but there was limited scope for him to further develop his passion for photography until he moved to Dubai nine years ago. By then, his focus had shifted from fashion to interior photography, which, in turn, inspired him to explore ways of combining photography with furniture design. He began designing cushions, which were quickly picked up by O’de Rose, and then moved onto throws, bean bags, poufs and larger, more substantial furniture items. Today, his portfolio includes everything from Umm Kulthum cushions and Marvel-inspired stools to wooden side tables and weekender bags made from neoprene (the material used for diving suits).
From the very beginning, Khalifa’s work has been defined by his love of colour. “I’ve always been fascinated by colour throughout my life. And I think one of the types of art that best utilises colour is pop art, so I wanted to specialise in pop art. But having Arabic roots, I thought why not take that history that we have and revive it in a way that is cool?”
Umm Kulthum, one of Khalifa’s heroes, makes a star appearance in that thinking – on cushions, stools and various other surfaces – as do other Arab stars of old, including Shadia, Sabah, Lobna Abdel Aziz and Omar Sharif. It is a style that is becoming increasingly popular, but Khalifa sets himself apart by not being entirely restricted by this Arabian-inspired aesthetic – his products are as likely to feature Elvis Presley, King Kong, comic-book heroes or elephants (the latter photographed by Khalifa while on safari in Kenya). There’s also the Patch Me Up Dr collection, which takes different types of fabrics from around the world and patches them together to create colourful, textural furniture. And, crucially, objects can be completely customised. “I would like to be known as a ‘can-do-it-all’ designer,” he says.
In the future, Khalifa hopes to design carpets, as well as products that are multifunctional and that will appeal to all the senses. “I want to create a product that you can touch, hear and smell. For example, I am working on some Kulthum cushions that are fitted with a recorder, so you can just tap on it and listen to some of her music.”
The common theme across Khalifa’s creations is a sense of simplicity and nostalgia. And for all the “stuff” in his workspace, one thing is notable in its absence: the amount of technology used. There is a simple PC in the corner of the room – no Mac, no big screens, no fuss. “Everything in my life is basic,” he says. “The way I dress, my camera, everything. Yes, technology is evolving, but I use the minimum amount of technology that I can to produce the goods that I create.
“I love vintage. A lot of people think that designs used to be simple. But it actually had a deep meaning behind it. If you look at old black-and-white movies, especially in Egypt, the way that people dressed, the way that people talked, the settings, the way that everything looked perfect – these are the kinds of things I notice as a designer. And that’s because everything at the time was perfect.
“Through modernisation and our move towards the digital world, I think that we are moving away from perfection. In the old days, to produce a setting that had to look perfect, you had to work hard to make it so; and you couldn’t go back and change it afterwards. A part of me wants to go back to those old days – when people really made the effort to create something.”