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Monday, April 22, 2024
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Transforming Furniture into Functional Art: An Interview with Sabah Contractor, Founder of JustRestore

In a world where discarded furniture often finds its way to landfills, Sabah Contractor, the visionary founder of JustRestore, has emerged as a beacon of creativity and sustainability. Her journey from a flight attendant to a renowned furniture artist and entrepreneur is a testament to her unwavering passion for art and her commitment to giving new life to old, cherished pieces. In this exclusive interview with UAE Times, Sabah shares the pivotal moments in her career, her boundless inspiration, and the challenges and triumphs of running a thriving furniture restoration business. Discover how Sabah’s dedication to clear communication and her quest for innovation are shaping the future of functional art.

CAN YOU SHARE KEY MILESTONES AND TURNING POINTS IN YOUR JOURNEY AS AN ENTREPRENEUR AND INDUSTRY LEADER?

Every piece of furniture teaches me something new. I strive to enhance my techniques, add more detail, refine composition and proportions with each creation. When I reflect on my earlier artworks, I can clearly see significant improvements. Art is a perpetual evolution with no peak.

Sabah Contractor

A pivotal moment in my career occurred in 2021 when I was invited to become Annie Sloan’s Painter in Residence. This three-month residency program granted me the complete freedom to create six furniture pieces, showcasing my artistic and creative abilities. I’m proud to be the only one in Asia to have been selected for this prestigious residency. Annie Sloan, a pioneer in furniture paint, introduced her Chalk Paint in 1990.

My work has been featured in several issues of the Colourist Magazine, published by Annie Sloan Interiors worldwide. Being showcased alongside industry experts, artists, and renowned interior designers from around the globe has been a great honor.

Among the pieces I’ve painted, a few hold a special place in my heart. One such piece was a buffet, which I was tasked with restoring and replicating to resemble a factory-manufactured fiberglass item with intricate vertical, multi-colored lines. This makeover consumed nearly 6-7 weeks of my time, working 6-8 hours a day. I recall sleepless nights, hoping for a perfect outcome. Some mornings, I’d wake up determined to fix any imperfections that bothered me. I affectionately named it my ‘Striped Masterpiece,’ and it received acclaim from art enthusiasts worldwide. In 2019, it earned me third place in the global Zibra Golden Brush Awards. This piece was particularly meaningful to me because it shattered my initial self-doubts.

In 2018, I reached the top 10 finals of the Annie Sloan Middle East Furniture Painting Competition, where I adorned a table with a peacock design.

I am immensely grateful and excited for the opportunities I’ve had. They serve as the ultimate validation of my artistic journey.

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION FROM?

For the furniture I source, whether for display or sale, I draw inspiration from my travels during my time as a flight attendant. I often revisit photos of places, landscapes, restaurants, quaint alleyways, and towns I’ve encountered. These images help me in selecting color combinations and textures. Sometimes, even a simple stroll in the park with my kids can lead to the discovery of a beautiful feather, which becomes a source of inspiration. At other times, random ideas pop into my mind, and I quickly sketch them to see if they make sense before bringing the vision to life on a piece of furniture. When I have the opportunity to work on my own ideas, I either find suitable pieces on second-hand furniture platforms or explore my own home to identify furniture that fits the vision.

When it comes to commissions, many of my clients send me photos of something they’ve seen and would like me to recreate on their furniture, adding my unique twist. Some clients entrust their furniture entirely to my creative whims. It’s a delightful experience! Typically, I request clients to share photos or videos of their existing decor, allowing me to suggest color schemes and understand their preferences and dislikes. We collaborate to arrive at a shared vision that both the client and I find suitable for the type of furniture I am restoring. This entire process, from discussing the initial idea to witnessing the transformation of the furniture from its ‘before’ state, is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START YOUR OWN COMPANY AND VENTURE IN THIS INDUSTRY?

I have been painting since I was a child, experimenting with watercolors and acrylics. A few years ago, feeling a lack of focus and direction in my career, I realized that my true passion lay in art and painting. I yearned for a new challenge, something beyond traditional canvases.

One day, I stumbled upon some dilapidated chairs lying around my home. I decided to restore them, not with the intention of selling but simply to breathe new life into them. To my surprise, they sold within days after I posted them on social media. That was a Eureka moment for me. I began painting and restoring old tables, chairs, and more in my home. After numerous trials and errors, I gained the confidence to work with different products, techniques, and ensure durability. It was only then that I felt ready to take on commissions. That’s how my business, JustRestore, was born in January 2019.

My involvement in furniture restoration also aligns with my commitment to sustainable living. Sustainability is crucial, especially in a country like the UAE, where the majority of the population comprises expatriates. Many people tend to buy new furniture and discard the old, contributing to landfills. This is where furniture upcycling plays a vital role. People are becoming more aware of the wastefulness of continuously purchasing new furniture and are choosing to revamp their existing pieces to match their new homes and décor. I’ve painted approximately 400-500 pieces of furniture, and it’s incredibly satisfying to know that at least 60% of them would have ended up in landfills if not for my clients giving furniture restoration a chance. I don’t hesitate to persuade clients when they’re torn between restoring or buying new, ensuring they won’t regret their decision.

I firmly believe that art should not be confined to walls alone, which is why I have a passion for painting furniture. It’s a wonderful feeling to create ‘Functional Art’ that people can actually use, whether it’s on a chest of drawers or a table. Most of my creations feature intricate artwork and vibrant colors, though I also appreciate the elegance of monochrome. The most rewarding moments come when people entrust me with painting on their antique pieces, heirlooms that have been passed down through generations.

HOW DO YOU FOSTER INNOVATION WITHIN YOUR COMPANY? CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF A SUCCESSFUL INNOVATION INITIATIVE?

I’ve observed a significant shift in people’s attitudes towards furniture restoration in the U.A.E. There was a time when people didn’t think twice about buying new furniture. However, now, there is much greater awareness of the options available. Some of my clients possess furniture made from strong, solid wood, which is increasingly rare. These cherished pieces are often passed down through generations or accompany individuals as they move from one home to another.

I enjoy continually experimenting with different techniques. In the realm of furniture art, even the most ordinary objects can be used creatively. As I mentioned earlier, there is always room for growth and self-improvement. Additionally, I’ve started conducting workshops where I teach the entire process of furniture upcycling, from start to finish. During these workshops, I share the tips and tricks I’ve acquired over time. This is also a way for me to promote the sustainable living initiative. Furthermore, I have plans to initiate workshops for children, allowing them to unleash their creativity while learning the value of prolonging the life of furniture rather than discarding it.

HOW IMPORTANT HAS NETWORKING BEEN IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL JOURNEY?

In the furniture restoration business, much like any other enterprise, word of mouth is crucial. I firmly believe in the mantra that when you embark on something, you should give it your absolute best right from the very beginning, starting with the very first stroke. There should be no room for error. This commitment is reflected in my work. I’ve had the privilege of working with numerous clients who entrusted me with their furniture projects since the inception of JustRestore. Many of them have returned over the years with additional projects and have recommended JustRestore to their family and friends. The quality of my work plays a pivotal role in this. The end product must not only be aesthetically pleasing but also durable. I refuse to take shortcuts at any stage of the process and use only the highest quality materials available.

Furthermore, social media plays a significant role in showcasing my work to a wider audience. I consistently share work-in-progress videos and clips as I work on furniture pieces, providing transparency to the process and assuring clients that they are receiving a quality product.

I also actively participate in networking events and workshops, especially those tailored for working mothers. These events serve as an excellent platform to spread the word about my work and offer insights into the world of furniture art. They also provide me with valuable knowledge about business strategies and pricing models. Despite the growing popularity of furniture makeovers and upcycling, I still encounter individuals who are not familiar with the concept, leading to engaging and enlightening conversations.

WHAT MAKES YOUR COMPANY ATTRACTIVE TO PROSPECTIVE CLIENTS?

I ensure that each piece I work on is not only unique but also durable, as these two qualities are highly valued by my clients. Every makeover I undertake is meticulously hand-painted, whether it involves a single color or intricate artwork. People in Dubai truly appreciate art and recognize its value when they see it. When clients entrust their furniture to me, they understand that the result will be a one-of-a-kind piece, distinct from factory-manufactured designs.

Furthermore, I am versatile in working with furniture made from a wide range of materials, including solid wood, outdoor furniture, MDF, glass, metal, laminate, and more. There’s virtually nothing I hesitate to work on when it comes to furniture. I use Annie Sloan Chalk Paint, a VOC-free, odor-free, and fume-free paint that is also safe for children’s toys. Since it’s water-based, it’s an eco-friendly choice as well.

Most of my work is commission-based. Clients often ask me to upcycle furniture they are attached to or that holds significant functional value but appears outdated. Occasionally, I also work on brand-new showroom furniture. Clients prefer to purchase pieces that fit in terms of size or shape and then have me transform them to suit their decor. Then there are the cherished vintage pieces, some of which are nearly 150 years old, passed down through generations. These hold a special place in my heart, knowing the memories attached to them and the trust placed in me to work on them. Additionally, I’ve had the opportunity to paint several musical instruments for clients, a particularly exciting endeavor as it combines two art forms: music and visual art!

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACE?

One of the significant challenges I encounter is when clients have a specific makeover idea for a piece that may not be well-suited to it or is technically challenging. While the majority of my clients trust my expertise and are open to my suggestions, there are times when I need to persuade them. To do so, I often create sketches and provide color swatches, helping clients understand why a particular approach may not be the best fit. Most clients appreciate this guidance and are grateful that I ensure their furniture is beautifully and appropriately restored.

However, there are also instances when clients are determined about a particular look, and in such cases, I am flexible and create exactly what they’ve requested. When collaborating with interior designers and architects, I place trust in their vision for the home they are styling, while also offering my technical insights. Many of them rely on my expertise to suggest what will complement a specific piece of furniture.

In most cases, my clients prefer to give me creative freedom and trust in my artistic abilities when I work on their furniture pieces, which is an incredibly enjoyable process. As an artist, I truly cherish this artistic freedom. On the other hand, some clients prefer to be actively involved in every step of the process, providing clear direction.

I emphasize the importance of absolute clarity before commencing any project because when there’s ambiguity, the final outcome may not always meet expectations.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ASPIRING ENTREPRENEURS IN THIS INDUSTRY OR PEOPLE WHO WOULD LIKE TO START DIY?

Embarking on something new for the first time opens the door to creativity. All you need to do is take that initial step and start small. In the realm of art, there’s no requirement for a large-scale investment, which can be intimidating, especially when there’s the added pressure of breaking even. The key is to identify what you’re passionate about and get started. While people may offer advice on what works and what doesn’t, only you can determine the path to success for your business. It’s undoubtedly competitive, particularly in terms of pricing, so it’s crucial to recognize your own worth.

Furniture makeovers are among the most enjoyable and rewarding DIY projects that can swiftly transform your decor with just a few brush strokes. I often receive messages from individuals expressing fear or lack of confidence when starting such projects. My response is simple: you’ll never know until you try! In my opinion, the best way to begin is by selecting a small piece of furniture, whether it’s a small side table, an old chair, or even flower pots. Most of the paints available today require minimal prep work. All you need to get started is a brush and a pot of paint. If you’re feeling adventurous and creative, you can grab some tiny brushes and experiment with patterns or use tape to create geometric designs. The possibilities are endless.

WHAT KEY LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED ALONG THE WAY?

Clearing up any ambiguity in the vision for a piece between the client and myself is a lesson I’ve learned must be addressed from the very beginning. What I envision as artistic may not align with my client’s perspective, and vice versa. Art is highly subjective. Drawing from past experiences as valuable learning tools, I’ve come to understand that clarity regarding design, color choices, and the overall expected outcome is of utmost importance. If there is any disconnect in understanding, it’s advisable to pause and reconsider before commencing the project.

WHAT ARE YOUR LONG TERM GOALS FOR YOUR COMPANY?

I have been asked to create art on furniture by several international clients and home décor companies from around the world. This is something I’d like to explore further, with the correct logistics in place. With the current prohibitive shipping costs per furniture item, it doesn’t seem cost effective. However, I am certain there is a way to work around this hurdle and go international!

I would also eventually like to have a team of like-minded, creative individuals on board to help in growing JustRestore. I think it is fantastic when artists come together to discuss art and ideas and bring it to life together.

Connect with Sabah Contractor on LinkedIn.

Find JustRestore on Instagram. and Facebook

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