For most, a chipped and discarded piece of furniture lying against a skip, or a stack of pallet wood bristling with rusty nails and spatters of paint, would appear as nothing more than ugly rubbish. But for a handful of furniture designers and home accessories crafters in the UAE, the potential in that rubbish
"Why chop down a whole forest, which you don't even have in the UAE, just to make some shelves?" asks Jean-Paul Vanderbuilt, a Sharjah-based carpenter who has made a hobby out of creating stunning pieces of furniture from the used pallets he finds discarded in landfills, and creates tables out of the oil barrels and cable wheels he finds in the desert.
"The amount of usable wood in a landfill here is unbelievable. The tree that provided that wood has already paid its price, but the wood is still useable. It's silly to keep chopping down trees that take 40 years just to grow, especially when there's so much wood that can be recycled."
An old piece of furniture destined for the landfill can be salvaged and turned into a thing of beauty, maintains Muby Astruc, the lady behind When Shabby Meets Chic. Astruc repurposes and paints old and unwanted pieces of furniture and turns them into coveted items of beauty.
"There is beauty in imperfectionism, and when I see these old pieces of furniture, that come with a past, a history, a story, a life lived in other people's homes, I want to bring them back to life," she explains. Astruc says the amount of furniture she finds in dumpsters and skips, or on the side of the road – "drive around your neighbourhood, especially on a weekend, and you will find a bunch of stuff that people threw away" – is significant.
"Everything that is not recyclable goes into landfills," she says. "That always happens to furniture. And if I care about beauty, about aesthetics, then I have to care about the beauty of our planet, of our environment. And I have to do what I can to counter that."
Here are six upcyclers in the UAE who are doing just that.
The Driftwood Factory
Making furniture started off as a hobby for Benjamin Swan. It was something he used to do for fun back in the United Kingdom, and after moving to Abu Dhabi, he dabbled a little in his garage, making furniture for his own home and for friends. When friends of friends began showing interest and requesting their own items, the potential for a business presented itself and The Driftwood Factory, based in Abu Dhabi, was born.
"We quickly found that using new, imported wood from the market just doesn't give our pieces enough character," says Swan. "We started picking up old pallets, initially from the Mina Port area, and we would dismantle it and use that wood to make really nice tables and benches and desks – all from reclaimed wood that had a roughness to it and a story behind it."
Customers loved the irregularities in the wood, and large floor mirrors out of reclaimed and distressed wood became show pieces for the company. "We loved that we were being environmentally-friendly and were not involved in cutting down trees," says Swan, who also recycles scrap metal and mixes it with the wood to give a bit of an industrial feel to his furniture. Wood is now sourced through partnerships with scaffolding companies.
"We go to their yards and select the discarded wood, so it's not going to waste. Once it's done its job, it's out, and we can transform it completely into a new, functional piece, which is pretty amazing."
When Shaban Al Huniti's architect brother, Mohammed, designed a few side tables out of pallet wood for his client in Amman, the brothers immediately realised that creating beautiful furniture out of abandoned, scrap material was the epitome of conscious and beautiful design – something that Al Huniti was passionate about.
A Jordanian-Canadian living in Dubai, Al Huniti began collaborating with his Amman-based brother to set up Raw. Their first collection launched in Dubai this past March, entirely on Facebook. Immediately, they began receiving three to four orders a day, and made $10,000 (Dh36,700) in sales in just one month. The demand, realised the brothers, was there.
A brand manager with a passion for art and design, Al Huniti quit his full-time job to focus on Raw. Their first signature piece, a hexagonal side table, pays tribute to the shape of a beehive and reflects their role in protecting the environment.
"I drive everywhere, to free zones and exhibitions and construction site and factories, and ask them for their unwanted pallets, and tell them we are recycling wood," says Al Huniti.
This makes the tables affordable and customisable, starting at Dh550 per item. "A table like ours might be Dh1,500 or Dh2,000 at a large, brick-and-mortar shop, especially in Dubai's consumerist culture," says Al Huniti. "Ours is affordable, and it's a one-of-a-kind item with character using wood that comes with a story."
Already, they have launched a summer collection, where the original, rustic tables now come painted in vibrant colours. An autumn collection is in the works, and the brothers are eager to branch out with different furniture designs, all using reclaimed wood and other recyclable materials.
Not everyone looks at a tyre and sees a coffee table. But Faisal bin Dayyeh certainly did. "I saw the idea on YouTube and decided to do it myself, without any outside labour help," says bin Dayyeh, an Emirati based in Dubai.
He recycles old oil drums and used tyres, which would otherwise be an "eyesore", he says, and turns them into chairs and tables, respectively.
"I know these things cause a problem for the environment and 'uglify' my country. I wanted to try something new by recycling them."
A single chair, made out of a single barrel, takes him two days to make. Same goes for the tables. He produces around 50 of each, each month, and markets them on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.
"I made sure to keep them inexpensive, so anyone can own them," says bin Dayyeh, who sells his chairs for Dh230 to Dh270, and the tables between Dh220 to Dh250.
They come in a variety of different designs, decked out in Malaysian wood or draped in different materials, and can be customised. Bin Dayyeh even preps the barrels and tyres himself, giving them a vigorous cleaning before getting started, and painting them up in saturated hues.
"These can be used in a majlis, in an office, for personal use, or in a cafe; they are simple chairs and tables with endless uses, and they help in recycling materials that would otherwise be trash. Tyres can't be recycled, they are just harmful to the environment. So I am very proud for having thought of this," says bin Dayyeh.
He goes by Don Carpenter, or you can find him by searching for "pallet furnitures in Dubai" or "creative furnitures Dubai" on Facebook. But his name is Atef Ali, and making furniture out of pallet wood has become his passion.
The mechanical engineer, a Pakistani who was born and raised in the UAE, only realised he loved working with wood when he decided to try his hand at making a crib for his daughter five years ago.
"We were living in Deira, in a very small apartment, and we didn't have space for a proper crib," recalls Ali. He broke down an old Ikea bed, and used the wood to create a small, foldable crib that could be put away when not in use. "It was a first shot that turned out alright."
Ali built all the furniture in his home, using scaffolding and pallet wood salvaged from construction sites. "Wood is very expensive in this part of the world. There is so much waste, with so much discarded." Using recycled wood, he says, is his way of doing something small for the environment.
"I keep my eyes peeled always when I'm out," says Ali. He uses steel drums, oil barrels, discarded pipes and plumbing fittings, scrap metal and pallet wood, to make lamps, show boxes, beds, tables, shelves, playhouses; anything he or a customer can dream up.
"I'm going to open a proper workshop by the end of the year, and really focus on this passion," says Ali, who builds everything Don Carpenter in his home in Ajman.
When Shabby Meets Chic
Muby Astruc's tireless work to give secondhand furniture a new purpose has made her a household name among lovers of repurposed furniture in the UAE. The ex-journalist of mixed background has lived her entire life in Dubai, and left a thriving career in journalism five years ago to focus on nurturing her creative side.
"There are many forms to art, and I wanted to create things that inspire and touch people," says Astruc.
Quickly, she realised that painting furniture that might otherwise be thrown away ignited a passion in her. She launched a Facebook page to show people was she was doing, and soon, they began asking her if they could buy her pieces of "faded grandeur", or if she could give new life to their old furniture and imprint them with her particular style of shabby, French-chic, vintage furniture.
Over the past year, the business grew organically, and today, Astruc holds regular workshops and one-on-one sessions where she teaches likeminded individuals how to repurpose furniture and give it new life.
She even founded a Facebook page to answer people's questions on how to paint furniture, and to share projects with one another: UAE Furniture Artisans Forum.
She also became the UAE's sole stockist for Frenchic Furniture Paint, an all-natural, environmentally-friendly chalk and mineral paint that is safe to use indoors and on children's toys, and contains no toxins. The furniture doesn't even need to be primed, stripped or sanded down before the paint is applied, so anyone can do it.
"There's something very fulfilling about making something new out of something that was supposed to be destroyed," says Astruc.
Next week, Astruc will be launching a one-stop online shop for furniture art needs, where anyone in the UAE can purchase her paints and materials, to repurpose furniture in the comfort of their own home. In addition to the paint, people can buy brushes, stencils, iron-on decor for furniture and furniture stamps.
"You'll be able to give your furniture an instant shabby chic vintage look, and create beautiful pieces in mere hours," says Astruc. "Give old furniture a second chance. The beauty you create might astound you."
A wooden cable wheel that has been left out in the desert, and exposed to the elements – to the wind and sand and sun – is a thing of rare beauty to carpenter Jean-Paul Vanderbuilt.
The Welshman, who arrived in Dubai two years ago on a family visit and decided to stay, fell into creating furniture for family and friends "almost
The landscape architect used the wood from pallets to create garden furniture for a client in Bristol, to save money on cost. The result was so different than the usual garden furniture out there that people began putting in their own orders.
Vanderbuilt now lives in Sharjah, and in his spare time, heads out the Al Saaja industrial area to scavenge for pallet wood, old oil barrels and cable wheels, to create.
"Whatever I make, it's still going to be better than leaving it in a dump or skip or landfill to rot, or more original than a standard piece I might find in Ikea," says Vanderbuilt.