It all started with some brass inlay.
When Saba Homaira Ahmad asked the upholsterer to restore a vintage brass inlaid sofa in some stretch gabardine, she didn't realise that this venture would turn into a side hustle to her interior design work in a year or two.
Having lived in Montréal, a city known for its eco-conscious lifestyle, Saba was no stranger to recycling, upcycling, reusing or swapping, but she was not sure how second hand consumption would play out in Dhaka.
Turns out, she had nothing to worry about.
"Dhaka is a pro in recycling all sorts of stuff, including furniture. It has a bustling second hand market. You could get a second hand sofa alright, but could you get a sofa with 'Streamlined silhouette, freshly upholstered in a fabric that's similar to Belgian linen in feel and character'? Probably not," said the interior designer and furniture re-designer.
This is where Saba's touch comes in.
She buys furniture with good "bones" and proportions, and then reworks the entire silhouette in a style that can be described as young, modern, minimal, and somewhat European. When the "reloved" pieces started selling one after another, she was hooked on the process.
She started scouring junk shops, second hand stores and Facebook pages for used furniture for pieces that can be transformed into something fresher, more appropriate and tailored for apartment living.
A dilemma she faced while selling these pieces was how to categorise the finished pieces: "Are these old, or are these new?" She sold her pieces through Facebook selling pages to err on the safe side of "old".
While a portion of her clients were expats who were familiar with the concept of refurbished pieces and were happy to compensate for the creative input involved, the "deshi" clientele initially contested the price referring to the pieces as old and used.
However, they, too, eventually warmed up to the concept once explained.
Sometimes a project costs much more than expected because the skeleton needs serious reinforcement. Other times the foam prices go up because of import complications causing a budget surpass. Recently, it has been hard sourcing pieces, as the whole nation tightens its belt and holds onto their old stuff to brace for the tough times ahead.
Most of Saba's redesign jobs follow a similar pattern: editing the silhouette by trimming out the overly decorative bits, simplifying the upholstery in terms of colour and pattern, as well as fewer cushions, stripping the ubiquitous and horrendous "tetul bichi"(Tamarind seed) stain off the wood to reveal the uneven, yet lighter and often prettier original tones and grains.
She does not use upholstery materials that are available in the market; rather prefers sturdy fabric that can take the pulling and stretching of the upholstery process.
"Those are too fresh for my liking. I like the homier feel," Saba lamented about the locally available upholstery material.
Asked how our readers can pull off their own "reloved" project, Saba suggests checking out for sturdy construction first. Then she recommends going through websites like Pinterest or other visual resources to train the eye.
"It's like writing. To write well, you'd have to read a lot. To be able to spot a piece of furniture with potential, you'd have to hone your eye by regularly looking at good designs,"- the furniture refurbisher said.
"Otherwise you wouldn't be able to do it even if I handed you all the resources," she added laughing.
From a business perspective, Saba classifies her business as a boutique operation. She does not maintain much of an overhead, she said. Her carpenters freelance. Initially she used to get the work done in her apartment, but that eventually started to affect a certain health condition of hers. So when some floor space opened up in her uncle's building, she moved some of her storage and operation there.
As the operation faced Covid-19 slump like all other businesses, she had steered herself to her other great love: lamps. Unlike the furniture, these lamps are not entirely made of old pieces, but they are unique on their own merit. Some have shades made from fabric remnants, some are made from retail dinnerware, and some are made from old chemical jars, pieced together by repurposed brass pipes.
In line with slow fashion and slow home, Saba refers to her reloved pieces as 'slow furniture'. With a sturdy interior and modern exterior, these pieces are built to last, transition easily from one home to the next, and exude an understated elegance.
This business, along with her interior design practice that specialises in small space and adaptive reuse projects, bind various slow living concepts of making do, zero waste living, minimalism and 'beautility' (the concept of merging beauty with utility) seamlessly together while keeping precious resources out of the landfill.
A win all around.