Radio Cairo is a distinct form of design collective

A few months back, a “collaborative design collective” emerged seemingly out of the blue called Radio Cairo. While Radio Cairo isn’t actually a radio station, the designs created by the group draw heavily on Cairo’s music scene, aiming to “revive the local visual languages of Cairo’s music industry” through imagery referencing everything from the region’s historical classical music to Mahraganat — a controversial subgenre that emerged from the streets of Cairo and fuses R&B, rap, and techno. 

Music felt like a graphically rich and culturally interesting theme for Radio Cairo when they set about creating a series of designs for a streetwear range sold by Everpress this year. The project was orchestrated by Markus Lange, a graphic designer and tutor who splits his time between Cairo — where he’s taught graphic design with a focus on typography, poster design, and editorial design at the German University in Cairo since 2018 — and Leipzig in Germany.

Radio Cairo is unusual as collectives go, since (for now, at least) it seems that it was founded solely to work on the clothing line imagery and has since largely disbanded. At least one member no longer lives in Cairo, too: type designer Abdo Mohamed, founder of the Boharat type foundry, is currently based in Dubai. The other members are Céline Raffy, Mariam Khattab, Beanie, Mariam Koota, Rana Wassef, Bassant Ahmed, Habiba Nasr, and Malak Ghoneim, as well as Lange.

Designs by Radio Cairo for Everpress. Photos: Markus Lange

The group is formed of some of Lange’s former students, who work across a breadth of disciplines from video to type design, illustration, editorial design, and more. “Each genre has its own rich identity, and each design tells a story or gives a little insight into the local visual and musical culture,” says Lange. “Music is our daily companion, cultural asset and identification but also the universal language that connects people. We play with this theme in our collection and have made a remix of what reaches us in Cairo through our hearing and is anchored in our heads. The result is an experimental collection that reflects us, our musical and visual taste but also Cairo and its sound and vibe.”

The designs also heavily draw on the aesthetic and “spirit” of Cairo’s streets – a heady mix of “old signage and young international fashion trends”, according to Lange. “We combine the motives of the different designers, and made new motives out of that,” he says. As such, there’s a mix of Arabic scripts and Latin text; traditional graphic elements from Cairo and more abstract designs. One shirt bears an image of pigeons, in a nod to the many “pigeon towers” across the city; while musical instruments are also a common motif.

“Cairo’s full of stuff, everywhere: you don’t see ‘perfect’ graphic design; but there’s a lot of stuff from the past mixed with new design elements,” he adds. “There’s a rich culture, for example, of stickers on trucks: things like Mickey Mouse stickers and elements from the 90s, a lot of comic book stuff, but that’s all mixed in with historic content.”

These sort of reference points come through in the collection thanks largely to the illustrators on the team, including Céline Raffy, whose work is largely character-driven and poppy in style.

While for now, Radio Cairo only exists for this collection, Lange is hopeful that the group can work together again — and having produced such great imagery, it would be a shame not to. He puts the fact it seemed to end fairly abruptly down to a generational difference: maybe where older designers would want to herald the launch with a party, or strive to push the idea further, he reckons that for some younger people “it’s sometimes enough to get 200 likes on Instagram: maybe they don’t know the feeling of continuing to push an idea — do something underground but then make a business out of it”.

Lange also acknowledges the cultural differences between Europe and somewhere like Cairo: where say Germany has a history of small print shops or design studios, those sort of things are still in their naissance in Egypt. He continues: “I don’t really believe in ‘graphic design’: I believe more in the power of collective collaboration, sharing ideas of sitting together and doing stuff together. It’s much easier, it’s more effective, and it’s also much more fun.”