Peter Matta is a man that leaves an impression wherever he goes – be it on a beach in Gouna, a glitterati party in Cairo, or at Beano’s in Zamalek – which is where I met him on a particularly noisy day to speak about his latest entrepreneurial venture, Beit Matta.
Having been bred of the corporate world through the family business, Matta spends as much time as he can in El Gouna, where his vision for unique, one-of-a-kind, handmade home accessories and furniture first came to light.
Only months into his new path of artisanship, the name Matta is on everyone’s lips – and not just because it’s fun to say.
So, you traded in your suit and tie for shorts and shades?
Yeah, I took over the family business in 2005 and was working in the medical industry for around nine years – think ambulances, medical equipment etc. I brought in some of my own ideas and we were the first to bring ambulance boats in the Middle East, Africa and some European Countries. We launched them in Luxor and Aswan in 2010 in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, before bringing them to Cairo in 2013. We’re still spreading the initiative to other Nile locations and to the Mediterranean and Red Seas. We were also the biggest supplier for engineering machinery, as well as accessories for food & beverage factories.
And now you’re making home accessories – what made you make such a dramatic career change?
By 2010, my personal interests and passions began to take me to where I needed to be. I wanted to do something for me; something that I’m more connected to. I kept exploring and I even went to New York for a while to study events management and marketing and was ready to embark on a career in that field. By 2012, though, I was ready to leave Egypt and had put together a six-month exit plan. But almost exactly six months later, I fell in love with the idea of Beit Matta.
My plans quickly changed; I had finally found something that I liked, so I thought, “Why should I leave?”
It all started by luck. There was never a plan. It started with me making my own furniture and home accessories at my place in Gouna.
So, wait; you started this as a hobby?
Yeah, it was a total hobby. I decided that, as it’s my first property, I want to make everything – I even designed the tiles.
When I would have friends and guests over, they would ask me where I got certain items, not knowing that I had made them myself. Some began to ask me if I could make certain things for them and the ball started rolling from there. After awhile I thought, wait, where is this going? Can I make something of it?
Where did you learn the skills to do all of this?
I don’t know! I think I had an instinct for it. Since I was young, I’ve always enjoyed art classes. I did an interior design course at College LaSalle while finishing my double BA in Economics and Poliscience at Concordia in Montreal and at AUC, I minored in theatre, too, so I’ve always had a creative spirit in me, but it was just a case of finding what to do with it.
I owe a lot to a lot of my friends, who just started helping out of love and support. I owe my mum a lot too and we often play together with colours and fabrics.
October 2013 was when I decided to take this seriously. I’d travelled to Mykonos and came back full of energy and inspiration. By January, I had the name and the logo, then I slowly started to form the branding, the social media etc.
What elements of the process are you involved in exactly?
Everything! I sketch the designs, go to the workshop and supervise the craftsmen – there are some things I can’t do, of course. I work with lots of different workshops – four different copper and metal workshops, one for glass, two for ceramics, three for handmade embroidery work and three for furniture.
How would you best describe your style and the type of design values people can expect from Beit Matta pieces?
There isn’t one, really. I do what’s in my heart, what inspires me. I don’t care how crazy it might be – I do what I feel and it doesn’t really matter if I produce a piece that doesn’t sell – I’ll just keep it for myself!
I play a lot with colours and like to think that I’m daring in my approach. I like to play with fabrics, I often use rare fabrics and I like to customise pieces. I think this all helps my pieces to be unique.
Beit Matta has organically evolved; I make beds, mirrors, tables, trays, ice buckets, lighting, ceramics, etc, so I had never put any limitations on what kind of pieces. So in that sense, I’m open to anything.
Alright, let’s dial things up to ‘pretentious’ – where do you find inspiration to make something as unexciting as a pouffe into something that looks good enough to eat?
(Peter chokes on his Oreo milkshake) Are you hungry or something?
I don’t know to be honest. I can spend a week with nothing, then all of a sudden, something hits me at 4AM and I jump out of bed immediately and sketch it.
I get my inspiration from all over the place. The Sea inspires me; Sinai, the mountains, nature, life, but also the streets of old Cairo.
I love my culture, and I very much love the infusion of different styles that have come to make the Egyptian style – Islamic, Coptic, Ottoman, Pharaonic, Mediterranean, Nubian. I take inspiration from all of those things, but I just go with my heart.
I’ve also been inspired random things in the street. I recently saw an abandoned street cart that I took, added drawers to it and repurposed into a piece of furniture.
What do craftsmen think of your designs?
(Peter proceeds to hunch is back, screw up his face and adopt a rather nasally tone) “Ostaz Beter, 7agaatak mokhtalefa awy – heya 3agbana tab3an, bas fe3lan leek el touch beta3ak.”
It’s been a bit of an adjustment for me having come from the corporate world and things aren’t always easy when it comes to deadlines, but it’s getting better. Just last week, one of the guys I’ve worked with for a while – who’s in his sixties – told me that he’s learnt from me.
It made me incredibly happy to hear something like that, because I’ve learnt so much from them, too. What makes it all the better is that these guys love their jobs and they’re proud of what they do – but it’s dying out as an art. Since the revolution, most workshops like these have closed down. One of the workshops I use is one of only two in an area that had five times that just a few years ago. I really feel like in ten years this will all have died out.
Oh don’t be so dramatic – you really think so?
Yes. For most of these guys, it makes more sense to buy and run a cab or tuktuk, because no one wants these handmade crafts anymore. They’re simply not appreciated and with the state of tourism and the economy, they will eventually die out.
There are other entrepreneurs and designers, some of whom are friends, who are using local craftsmen and materials. I support any Egyptian artist and respect anyone who makes that kind of risk in leaving the safety of their jobs to do something that is both creative and will help Egypt get back on its feet.
For me, it’s not just about throwing things together and selling them. I’m happy to do what I can to help local industry and love working with Egyptian craftsmen, even though they occasionally have me pulling my hair out! It’s so nice to hear their old stories and how proud they are to be maintaining our heritage through their work – it literally gives me goose-bumps. It all feeds into my inspiration, and I often walk through old streets, just looking around at the architecture and taking photos.
What’s on the horizon for Beit Matta?
Well, my pieces can be ordered online and my place in Gouna is essentially a showroom right now. I also sell some of my pieces in what I think is the best home accessories and furniture shop in Gouna, Inside-Out.
I also have interest from Alexandria, so I’m taking things step by step. I’m in no rush. So far, I’ve only ever taken action when it feels right and things have gone well – knock on wood. I could have had my pieces on sale in Cairo by June of this year, but I just wasn’t ready and it didn’t feel quite right.
I’ve recently taken on my first, what you might call, ‘corporate venture’ in the form some special women’s jewellery and men’s accessories that were exclusively made for the Egypt launch of Davidoff at 6IX Degrees during Eid, which will be worn by reps all summer.
I’m travelling to Mykonos, Greece next month for a month-long exhibition which I’m specially designing a new collection for. I’m in talks with several shops in Cairo; nothing is concrete yet, but hopefully, things will begin to become clearer by October.
The thing that has kept my feet on the ground is that I have never looked at it financially – I never did it for money. I left a corporate world that I was doing well in and life before Beit Matta was much more comfortable, of course. But I’m doing it out of passion and love, and people seem to be feeling it and connecting to it.