How did you get interested in the artisan craft of upcycling and furniture art and how did that turn into a retail business?
I started my career as a full-time journalist at 19. Six years ago, at the age of 35, the urge of walking away from it all and starting life all over again had taken root. As a creative, I’ve expressed myself through various creative fields, from journalism and photography, to fashion, styling and interiors, so picking up a paintbrush was a natural progression. It wasn’t planned; I found myself in our last villa with an empty house and a micro budget. So, I went online and ordered everything I needed to begin transforming my home. While doing so, I realised how few options the UAE had if we wish to upcycle furniture in a manner that is both cruelty-free and environment-friendly. I spent a year testing out various brands until I knew which products resonated with my values and then finally, in September last year, I officially launched my e-commerce website When Shabby Meets Chic for home and furniture makeover products that are cruelty-free as well child, pet and eco-friendly.
In a city like Dubai that’s obsessed with the newest and latest, what significance and acceptance has this artisan craft of upcycling found? Are a lot of people interested in it?
Dubai is, I would like to believe, a city of duality, of beautiful contrasts. For each person that has thrown away old, unwanted furniture by the skip to replace with a new commercial version, there is a person who has dug up that piece and rescued it from going to landfill. I have with me over 2,000 like-minded women (and some men) from all around the UAE who think nothing of jumping into the trash to save and give a second chance to an unloved piece of furniture. Each day, our little world of UAE Furniture Artisans grows.
What are the benefits of the eco-friendly chalk and mineral paints, and other products you stock on your e-commerce website?
Pretty much every single item I sell, from our vintage furniture transfers, to our ethically-produced hand-made furniture mouldings, brushes and creamy waxes, comes with the guarantee of indoor usage, with no harmful chemicals and are easy enough for an absolute beginner to work with. The Al Fresco range by Frenchic is also the only outdoor chalk paint available in the country and we stock it too. Chalk and mineral paints have no hidden toxins such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is certified child and pet safe and is EU-certified environmentally friendly as well as cruelty-free.
Could you please briefly take us through the various steps and processes involved of restoring an old piece of furniture?
There’s more than just a fresh coat of paint. The first thing I do is analyse the existing wood and finish of the furniture – is it a soft wood like pine, wood prone to oily residue like teak, or just a silicon finish put on by the original manufacturer? Each piece of wood is then painted accordingly – some need to be roughed up in order to create a 100-year-old look, others need to be freshened up to make them more modern. For example, some people may come to me with a sharp-cornered sideboard to be transformed into a soft, vintage piece straight out of 19th century Europe, in which case, I hammer little holes into them to create chips, scratches and dents and create the illusion of years of usage. All these imperfections create the look of a vintage piece which is then enhanced with colour washes, dry brushing, gilding of the edges, paint flickers, stamped borders, and image transfers.
What are the other benefits of a DIY furniture restoration project other than it being environmentally-friendly?
Furniture art is as much a meditative process as it is creative and energetic – there is a massive inner peace, acceptance and hope that comes into being when one takes their own energy and channels it giving a piece of old, unloved furniture a better tomorrow, while proudly displaying its scars from the past. Many of the amazing ladies I have coached, have used furniture art to fill the gaps left in their lives by empty nests, retirement and leaving a career to become stay-at-home mums. New expats who have left family and friends behind to build a life in the UAE also find it therapeutic.
What’s one piece of furniture you own that has a unique story behind it?
Before I makeover a piece of furniture, I stand back and watch it. As someone who will remain a storyteller, I allow each piece of furniture give me a feeling of its past. It gets a name and I paint it to reflect its past glory. Two pieces that stand out for me are a beverage rack that I found in a junk shop and a second-hand pine cabinet. The cabinet is Madeline; I bought her from a family who brought it with them from the UK years ago to Dubai and were selling it now that they were relocating again. The cabinet wasn’t in a bad condition, but her age was showing; she had lived through many years and at least two continents. Today, Madeline stands elegantly in my living room.
Where do you find the old pre-loved furniture that you give a new lease of life to?
You’ll often see me diving into the skips in Mirdif to rescue furniture that is destined to landfill. I also buy off a lot of FB market pages and I make sure I only buy old, unwanted pieces that no one else would want, never high-end designer furniture that I know will find new homes. I also rummage through junk shops and sometimes bring home antique pieces from charity shops around the world when I travel.
What is the secret to a beautiful, happy home?
It has to reflect you. Just being magazine-pretty is never enough – every colour, shape and function of your furniture and decor has to be a reflection of the people living in that space. Otherwise, it’s just a house, not a home.
What can those who can’t make it to the one-on-one classes in your Mirdif atelier, do to further their interest and skill?
To me, art isn’t about money, it is a gift of knowledge to feel, experience, create with and share and so, I am always just a phone call away and I personally answer every single question on my online forum, email, website and Facebook. You can also join my FB Forum called UAE Furniture Artisans Forum, watch my online video tutorials or go online to my shop and order that first tin of paint and your first furniture paint brush and just start painting.