Hend Riad and Mariam Hazem are the co founders of Reform Studio, an award winning design studio based in Cairo that turns plastic bags into beautiful furniture and accessories by reviving old Egyptian weaving techniques. To this day, Reform Studio has reused over 10,000 plastic bags and counting!
| 1. Tell us about your backgrounds and how you started.
My partner and I have similar backgrounds. We both graduated from the German University of Cairo and studied Fine Art and Design. We started working on Reform in our last semester of university in 2012. That was after the revolution in Egypt and we were super excited to be part of that great change. We wanted to make an impact and that led us to come up with the idea for our project. We thought about solving one of the biggest problems Egypt, which is trash. After doing some research, we found that plastic bags are the second most wasted material in Egypt. A plastic bag has a very long life and they are often discarded in the sea or by burning, which releases harmful toxins. Our research indicated that even recycling is not the best option for plastic bags because it consumed a lot of energy and resources and was expensive. That’s how we came with our idea to reuse the plastic bags. We thought about doing it by reviving an almost vanishing old craft and this way we can solve both an environmental problem and a social problem. We collect the plastic bags for an environmental cause and we give it a longer life and at the same time we are empowering local communities by providing job opportunities to local craftsmen.
| 2. What is the process and how did you learn about it?
It was and outcome of research and development we started by trial and error. We were trying to figure out how to cut and turn these plastic bags and start weaving it. We wanted to keep the idea very simple and we wanted to turn it into something very beautiful and very authentic with Egyptian roots to reflect this crafty technique with a new concept.
We figured out how to cut them for weaving, which happens in our workshop. Plastic bags don’t take any color so we don’t die them but we do have a color sorting process that we do first.
| 3. Who does the design for your final products?
Actually Mariam and I are the ones working on the designs. We are the one who thought of designing a new collection. We took our material to the national research center and verified that the material is durable, water resistance, could stretch double the size and it can hold more than 50 kg. Recently we developed the material to be 100% water proof so that no water can reach out the upholstery and so on. Then we started testing the fabric on different applications like furniture, home accessories and fashion collection. Also it’s washable so this helps.
The materials cover a lot of characteristics so it can have different and unlimited applications. That’s what encourages us to go further with the material in different products and different industries. It’s not normal to use the same material in fashion and then use it in upholstery and furniture. The material is very beautiful, practical and it has good characteristic that helps us do whatever we want with it.
| 4. What is the output of production? How you are selling your products?
It was a challenge to figure out production at first because we had a hard time finding the right craftsmen who will be loyal to this craft. But now we have our own workshop, which produces daily and we try to expand more every period. We have a great demand on the products internationally and locally and this push us to expand or workshop for a better impact.
We are showcasing our range of products in 6 showrooms. We also are selling in a furniture store in London. And we exported once to Paris. Our plan is to expand to the Middle East
And soon we will make an online store for reform to make the products more accessible to people all over the world.
| 5. How did people respond from the beginning until now?
In the beginning we won a competition in Egypt, which allowed us to go on a competition in Milan. When we exhibited in Milan in one of the largest furniture exhibitions in the whole world, we were the first Egyptians to enter the competition of the young designs and won. There was a lot of appreciation by the people in Milan of the story behind the products; like how it’s simple and doesn’t need any technology, and the environmental aspect of it. They are aware enough of the side effects of plastic bags while here there is a lake of awareness in this aspect.
| 6. Do you think there is a change coming? There is becoming more initiative about sustainability in Egypt and the Middle East?
Change is happening everywhere, even corporations are moving toward being green and zero waste. This is the upcoming wave and also in the Middle East it’s becoming the trend yet it needs more effort to educate people about it. We feel like without the old ways we couldn’t achieve whatever we have now
With the development of technology there is always a problem or a fault that will take us back to the old ways and how it’s started. How we started things is our base so whenever we have a problem we go to the origin of it.
| 7. What advice do you have for girls who have ideas just like you and they want to start? How to get funded, move forward, create and go?
It was so hard for us at the beginning and what encouraged us is how hard we believed in what we are doing. We see beyond that its really well designed and the cool products. We see how it helps others and the environment and helps revive an old craft. We saw the importance of it and that what pushed us forward. It couldn’t have been done without the support of our families and their belief on us and in what we do. Of course we had a lot of problems in the beginning and we weren’t sure whether we were going to make it. In the beginning we couldn’t find any craftsmen because they were all changing careers because the craft is not financially stable. So we had to go to disabled children school because it was simple so they teach it to the disabled children. All the things we produced at first were from this school. They spent months to search for crafts that could be produced at the workshop.
| 8. How long did it take you to be stable?
We didn’t have this stability until very recently. We continue to have the challenge of finding good craftsmen. It was also a challenge to finance and to grow and serve the demand we have and at the same time to have the capacity needed. We’ll always have challenges especially In the first few years.
| 9. What’s next for you?
Our vision is to become a design institute or to have this platform for design while making what we are passionate about and have a good impact on our society and the environment. To help the people understand the importance of what we are doing. That’s why whenever we do something new we have a slogan that we always look up to which is “we design for a better quality of life, we design for a cause, we design to spread a message”. This is our aim; we never design or do anything without a cause and a story behind it. We design to make a difference we don’t just design to create some beautiful things. We seek to make an impact to our design.
Besides our materials having this environmental and social impact, at the beginning it was like reflecting this massage to people and spreading awareness about waste and upcycling. More than half of the population in Egypt doesn’t even separate their trash at home. We are trying to spread the massage try to think twice before you throw anything on the streets, try to think twice before you throw anything in your trash, try to be positive and leave a positive impact on others. Actually on every piece we sell and make we give like a tag which has the information of how much you have saved of plastic bags, and so on. So we always keen to spread the impact of each product we do.
| 10. What advice do you have for other younger entrepreneur Muslim girls?
First of all we tell them to Never Give Up. You will always face problems; you will always find battles you have to fight if you really believed in what you do. Don’t be terrified of the community especially women in our countries that thinks Girls should stay home or whatever. Believe in what you want and you will do it eventually. It might take years but if you believe in it, it will happen. We face a lot of struggles but our believe makes us continue because we know it will happen and tomorrow is a better day.
Mashallah check out their website at ReformStudio.net and instagram @reform_studio. Their work is phenomenal!