Home > Living > People > We the People: “Sustainability to me is a way of life,” says local furniture designer and craftsman Ahmad Habshee
We the People: “Sustainability to me is a way of life,” says local furniture designer and craftsman Ahmad Habshee

We The People is a column commemorating Singapore’s independence and the people who are working towards making our country an even better place. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from environmentalists and entrepreneurs to trailblazing creatives for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home.

You might have heard of “fast fashion”, but what about “fast furniture”?

For the uninitiated, “fast furniture”, similar to fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, is a term coined for home-goods companies that manufacture and produce many styles and types of products quickly and cheaply. Yet, while the fashion industry has at least begun to recognise the issue regarding sustainability, the day of the sustainable dining table has yet to see light.

When looking for furniture, where’s the first place you’ll think of? Perhaps it’s getting it online for a fraction of the price, or perhaps a mass-produced retailer where you’ll be able to pop-in and out of the store with your item in hand within a couple of hours.

Apart from the multitude of options available at lowered prices and the convenience of it all, the reality of fast furniture has a more insidious side effect: what consumers save out of their pockets come at a significant cost to the environment. 

ahmad habshee
Ahmad habshee, founder of Urban Salvation

Enter Ahmad Habshee, a local furniture designer and craftsman that’s bringing back the appeal of handmade furniture pieces, one recycled wood piece at a time. We speak with Ahmad on what sustainability means to him, the challenges surrounding his work during the pandemic and supporting local businesses in Singapore.

Hi Ahmad! Could you share a little more about yourself and Urban Salvation? 

Well, I come from a simple family. Most people say that I’m a joyful, outgoing person by nature, but I also enjoy time to myself. As a furniture maker and designer, I get the best of both worlds. I love hanging out with my customers, learning about their lives, careers and experiences that ultimately give me a better perspective of life. When I’m alone working on furniture designs, it’s like living in a bubble — just me and my work. I can go on for hours in silence without music or distractions. It’s very peaceful.  

As for Urban Salvation, it has been a tremendous journey through ups and downs, and finally after 6 long years of hard work we’ve acquired our very own gallery. It’s nothing fancy like you see in a mall or some fancy building, but the team and I are very proud to say, “we started from the bottom, now we are here.” With a total space of more than 700-sqm studio and gallery filled with sustainable handcrafted furniture — who knew? We’ve come this far, and our capabilities have reached greater heights.

Woodworking isn’t the first career path that many in Singapore have in mind — how did this come about for you? 

I was in the entertainment industry for a while actually. While it taught me to be taught me to be more disciplined and more confident, as well as learning several life values such as being contented with what I have and to never give up, working in the entertainment world did not really speak to me — I knew I had bigger potential elsewhere. So, I decided to give woodworking a shot and after completing my first project I never looked back.   

How did you hone your craft?

Besides picking up some woodworking skills from school and while working at the Esplanade, I’ve also learnt from master craftsmen based in Singapore, Malacca, Bangkok, central Java and the UAE. Gaining experience from different parts of the world has really broadened my knowledge.

Has your heritage or background inspired your creative process anyway? 

I believe yes, it did. Even though I have never been taught by my great grandfather and grandfather who are both woodworkers, I hope I have made them proud. It’s in the bloodline, plus my father used to help out at his friend’s furniture shop so he understands my long working hours.

In terms of your career as the founder of Urban Salvation, what achievements are you proudest of? 

I must say, the team and the brand that I work hard for. It’s easy to hire some people to help you out. It’s easy to pay someone and tell them to do what is needed to be done. However, I don’t believe that “money is the answer to everything”. It’s the connection and trust that makes the foundation of a company stronger and better. Without the fundamental understanding between your colleagues and employees, it’ll be hard to sustain and preserve an long-lasting relationship with them. 

All in all, one of the things I am proud of as the founder of Urban Salvation is having a handful of curious-minded people to progress forward with. Besides, what’s more beautiful than a crew of deeply connected individuals with the same goal? 

Where do you source materials for your pieces? 

Singapore and Indonesia.

What are some of most unforgettable pieces you’ve made? 

Every single piece that we’ve crafted has a special place in my heart. Whenever I talk about a design similar to a past project, I can mention the name of the customer and the design, and as a small company I am very proud with my creations. One of our expatriate customers also brought our handmade dining table with him when he moved back to London. That really meant a lot to the team. 

What does the word “sustainability” mean to you?

Sustainability to me is a way of life. My work is not just about using sustainable material. It’s also to cultivate the art of woodworking, expressing the beauty and philosophy of design, raising awareness, teaching, and promoting words to save the earth through my work. Employing local. Supporting local talent and even my customers’ product if I can afford or need it. 

I also believe that we can connect with people not only through the sale of our furniture. Urban Salvation also has a blog specifically for netizens to have a good read about general topics, woodworking and of course, sustainability.

We believe in the whole motto of giving back to the Earth by using sustainable materials to create and produce furniture that not only looks good but feels good as well. Creating something out of reusable and recycled woods is a long shot in saving nature and its entirety but every step is worth the shot. 

Sustainable furniture is not easy for many to adopt, especially when consumers are constantly tempted with “fast furniture”. What does it mean to support local businesses that champion this cause? 

How do I say this – it’s quite a difficult topic for me. I keep to my principles and core values. I earn the trust of my customers and audience, and have intentions to make sustainable furniture an awesome and trendy option because if the Westerners and Europeans can do it, so can Urban Salvation. We are so blinded by the good work of international pieces that we tend to shun away the local businesses that have the same amount of potential.

There are many creative and skilful individuals in the nation, but they are often neglected. It means a lot to be able to support local businesses and give them the platform they need to voice their creativity. We will one day globalize the business, but we will make it true to the brand. 

The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during this trying time? 

The lockdown was brutal. We had to be agile, we had to go digital and we worked day and night fighting to survive. We did live Facebook and Instagram sales, set up e-commerce and even took video calls. We did it all and we prevailed! We did so well that we got featured in a CNA documentary called Hand Made Tales. On top of that, we encouraged the team to get vaccinated as soon as they can to protect ourselves, our families and our lovely customers. Now our Urban Salvation team is 100 percent vaccinated

ahmad habshee

COVID-19 has been challenging for all of us. What to you, are the silver linings?

Lots of media have now realised that we, the local talent, are an asset to Singapore workforce. We are the living proof of young Singaporeans who believe in their capabilities: no handouts, no capital, and no shortcuts.

It was scary at first. However, after receiving calls from customers, encouraging us to be strong — that was a big relief. Encouragement really helps. It shows that they really care.

What is your personal vision for Singapore?

After conquering the many hurdles that I have been through, I really hope Singapore will start to realise the power local businesses uphold. With sufficient platforms given to execute their talent and skill, they will soar further.

Citizens will then have a sense of belonging and will feel proud to be working in this nation. It is time that we encourage locals to express their creativity without the feeling of being small or ridiculed. One of my mentors ever said: “Others treat our nation as a pot of gold, a land of opportunity and others treat it as a hub to show the world they are a big company. The question is why not us the people.”

Urban Salvation
Address
9006 Tampines Street 93, #02-212, Singapore 528840
Website
Jocelyn Tan
Senior Writer
Jocelyn Tan is a travel and design writer who's probably indulging in serial killer podcasts or reading one too many books on East Asian history. When she actually gets to travel, you can find her attempting to stuff her entire wardrobe into her luggage. Yes, she's a chronic over-packer.