The French textile designer and illustrator Louis Barthélemy leads an enviable life, travelling to gorgeous far-flung locations in search of inspiration. He’s designed prints and patterns for Salvatore Ferragamo, Dior and Gucci, but he’s most happy travelling, exploring, and working with traditional craftsmen. However, instead of merely borrowing ideas and aesthetics as he travels, Louis is interested in preserving ancient crafts.
Back in 2019, in Cairo (which he now calls home), he collaborated with local artisan Tarek Abdelhay Hafez Abouelenin on a series of khayamiyas — traditional handmade 70-inch-by-70-inch tapestries (which are these days often digitally printed, making it a dying art) — which were sold to hotels and restaurants owned by friends.
Words: Zac Bayly
How would you describe your profession to someone who knew nothing about you?
I would present myself as an artist and textile designer, translating my dreams through fabric and drawings.
What aspect of your work brings you the most happiness or stimulation?
The freedom of it. I do not feel subjected to any form of authority nor do I feel objectified. I draw inspiration from the things I love and the people I meet, and this liberty is absolutely delightful.
What are the highlights of your career to date?
Joining Christian Dior under the helm of John Galliano in Paris in 2010 to design silks and prints. Having my Erotic tapestry ‘Nile Gym’ featured in T Magazine last summer. Also, my first solo exhibition last October in Beirut at Tawlet, which coincided with the first day of the revolution that Lebanon has been going through since.
Barthélemy's First Solo Tapestry Exhibition Rêveries in Beirut, Lebanon, 2019
Could you share your favourite photo from a vacation, and the story behind it?
I would choose the picture of my friend Ayman, who I met here in Siwa. He is praying with his head on the sand, wearing an elegant white galabeya, facing Mecca. I find the gratitude for life — and for the beautiful day spent together with another friend, Mohamed, in the Sahara — expressed in this pure gesture really moving. That day, just before the holy month of Ramadan, the three of us went for a trip into the desert, racing through the dunes until we found a little oasis where we swam and chilled for a little while.
Afterwards, we took the Jeep and drove to a nearby hot spring in the middle of the desert. The spot has few chairs and tables made of rattan and a white cotton tent, and it’s organized around a basin of hot sulphuric water. It’s surrounded by glorious date palm trees and a vegetable garden, and it’s run by a bunch of young men in the military. After a dip and a mint tea served by the boys, Ayman discretely walked away to pray quietly. I felt in his meditation a fond appreciation for life and its simple yet divine moments. Although I do not consider myself religious, I took a moment to thank God... It was beautifully troubling.
Ayman praying with his head on the sand, Siwa, Egypt
Who have been the most interesting artisans you've worked with?
I would say Tarek, the tent maker in Cairo I have been working with for the past three years or so. I love Tarek’s enthusiasm, reliability and willingness to approach subjects always with playfulness. His amazing sense of colour is so peculiar and unexpected — I love composing a piece with him and the scraps of fabrics we collect to make appliquéd and hand embroidered tapestries. I really appreciate the friendship we have built progressively since we met.
The Oasis, Siwa, Egypt
Siwa Desert, Egypt
Why do you feel it's so important to preserve traditional crafts?
These skills are endemic to a culture, yet part of a common heritage that has existed and evolved through invasions, wars, independence, revolution, keeping a sense of joyful folklore in uncertain times. These handcrafted techniques also require a precious and rigorous discipline that have brought in the chaos of history some beauty and harmony. Symbolically they channel a strong dynamic of life that is vital.
Temple du Nu, appliquéd and hand embroidered cotton canvas
Louis working with Tarek, the tent maker in Cairo, 2019
If you could own any piece of art, regardless of the price, what would you choose?
I would go for two artworks that I absolutely love: a gazelle shaped bar cabinet in gilt bronze called ‘Mouflon de Pauline’ by Francois-Xavier Lalanne for its playful functionality and sophistication paying tribute to nature, the ultimate source of inspiration. Secondly it would be a painting of Henri Matisse called ‘Le Cafe Arabe’ for its ravishing colour palette and the lasting memory it has left in my heart since I first saw it at the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg years ago.
"Mouflon de Pauline" by Francois Xavier Lalanne
"Le Cafe Arabe" by Matisse
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
I would invite Louis IX also known as Saint Louis for the novel of his battles in Egypt during the crusades. Antoine de Saint Exupery for his curiosity without borders and oniric eye on the world beautiful depicted in my childhood’s favourite book called “Le petit Prince”. Alexander the Great for his erotic and spiritual escape in Siwa. Jacques Majorelle for his passion dedicated to the colours of Africa. The exquisitely exuberant Queen Cleopatra for a touch of glam and finally Dalida for the party afterwards!
What music would you play?
Lately I have been obsessed with 70’s Egyptian and Sudanese disco. I’ve always been a fan of disco music but was never exposed to the African version of this genre and it puts me into a mellow and joyful trance!
Louis Barthélemy, A s-pec-tacular chest pump Appliquéd and hand embroidered cotton canvas , Cairo 2020