Empty jars of cream cheese, bottles of juice, torn clothes and scrap wood. These are just some items that double as eye-catching decor in Dubai resident Siddiqa Akhtar's Furjan townhouse.
A veritable upcycled haven, the Pakistani homemaker’s DIY space pays homage to her zero-waste lifestyle. Her creativity is evident from the entryway itself, where empty plastic bottles of micellar water, covered with pretty washi tapes, have been transformed into flower vases hung on the wall. At the other end, an old shoe cabinet has been repurposed with bright blue paint and self-adhesive paper.
Flowers, hearts and mirrors
"I don't like to throw away anything," declares Akhtar. Indeed, every wall of her three-bedroom home screams colour and showcases Akhtar's penchant for turning trash into endearing embellishments, brimming with flowers, hearts and mirrors in innumerable pastel tones.
Akhtar says she got hooked to upcycling quite by chance.
"In 2017, a friend was throwing away a pair of old chairs. I got them home, painted them white, covered the seat with a floral fabric and they were as good as new. Those chairs are still in the living room," she says.
This first upcycling attempt earned her rave reviews from friends and relatives, spurring her desire to try her hand at refurbishing other things.
Her next project was a set of worn-out tables Akhtar had long wanted to discard. "My husband Alam suggested I give them a new look, and I took that as a challenge," says Akhtar, who did a fair bit of research on glues and materials that gel well with wood.
She figured mod podge would work best, so she applied a coat of it on top of the table, covered it with a sheet of gift-wrapping paper, lying around at her home, then decorated the ends with a red starry ribbon and painted the legs a blazing yellow. "That was yet another turning point for me, seeing how a pair of dull brown tables could have such a dramatic makeover," she says.
Around that time, the couple also moved into a new villa and went scouting for items in home decor stores, only to come back disappointed at the exorbitant prices. Upcycling then became not only a creative and sustainable solution, but also an affordable one.
Boxes and butterflies
"I began reading up about ways to upcycle and investing in products that would help," says Akhtar. She started stocking patterned paper napkins, cardboard boxes and used household jars, and invested in a range of glues, paints and tapes. Now, most of her upcycling projects are completed within a budget of Dh50. Over the years, as her interest in recycling grew, Akhter learnt decoupage and completed a course in mosaic art.
One of her favourite spaces in her home, she says, is the TV lounge, where a teal green wall is adorned with upcycled, butterfly-themed decor. Bottles of hand wash, vinegar and juices have been painted in myriads hues and embellished with floral paper and sequins sporting straws with butterfly stickers.
An adjacent wall has boxes of iPads, chocolate wrappers and bottles of talcum powder reused with cut-outs from greeting cards, washi tapes, straws and stickers. When an old pergola in the backyard broke, Akhtar wrapped the wooden planks with coloured paper and hung them on a wall. When she found a torn scarf, she stretched it on a canvas and added it to the decor.
“This is how I recycle all the plastic and other waste materials at home. I also find upcycling is a great stress-buster. It lets me spend my time at home in a mindful way, keeping my worries away by helping me to stay calm and focused,” she says.
Out of the wood
A willing partner in her upcycling projects, Alam is a civil engineer. Together, she says, they make a great team. “He often brings back scrap wood, leftover tiles and mirrors once construction is completed on the site,” says Akhtar, “He is full of ideas that we jointly work on.”
Near the entryway, a D-shaped table, Akhtar says, is made out of scrap wood by her husband that she then decked with mosaic mirrors. An old TV trolley was dismantled by the duo, put together and repainted to be used as a storage shelf in the kitchen.
Akhtar advices the first step of an upcycling project should be to clean the product well, remove all labels and stains and then apply a white primer base. “Then you can add whatever you want, either spray-paint it, use acrylic colours or add glue, stick paper and sequins or even old jewellery – there really is no end to what you can create.”
The last step is to add a coat of sealant that will give a longer life to the upcycled product, which can last for years if kept well, especially away from direct sunlight.
Looking back, Akhtar says her belief in minimal waste and recycling can be traced back to her childhood. Growing up in Pakistan in a large family, her parents never wasted anything and practised zero-waste living before it become a buzzword.
“My mother used to make fresh dishes out of the leftovers in the refrigerator and my father made a huge curtain for the living room by stitching bits of old pieces of cloth at home. It became a conversation starter with guests,” she says.
Akhtar shares her upcycling tips on her Facebook page @upcyclinguniquewaydubai and Instagram handle @up_cycling_rocks_dubai, noting: “We all have a conscious responsibility to save the environment. I feel I am doing my bit through my sustainable lifestyle and I feel happier when others tell me that I have inspired them to reuse and recycle.”