15 May 2020
Alexandria, Egypt
Sustainable Furniture

For thousands of years, furious storms have lashed the seafront of Alexandria during winter. After the rough weather passes, street vendors of “batata” (roasted sweet potato) scour the shoreline for driftwood torn from ill-fated boats. The wood burns effectively in portable ovens for batata but, unfortunately, the cooking process results in harmful carbon emissions.

These days, the batata sellers of Alexandria face an unlikely, friendly rival for post-storm driftwood. Shahir Maged Mikhael, a former doctor, gathers up wooden scraps and re-shapes them into fashionable, durable, and sustainable pieces of furniture. With a lot of know-how and creativity, Mikhael’s one-man business Gazwareen sells these upcycled wooden gems to enthusiastic buyers.

Mikhael traces his intriguing career path as surgeon-turned-sustainable-furniture-designer to competing pressures from his upbringing in Agamy, just outside Alexandria. 

On the one hand, Mikhael’s father sparked his son’s lifelong passion for woodwork by building a home carpentry workshop. The young Mikhael immediately saw the potential for turning forgotten pieces of wood — including those swept ashore after storms — into something beautiful. 

Yet when it came to choosing a career, Mikhael’s family of doctors wanted him to follow suit instead of pursuing something more artistic. “My family saw art as something that does not make you a living,” recalled Mikhael. 

Eventually, the lure of Mikhael’s woodwork fascination proved stronger than his parents’ well-meaning career advice. After balancing medicine and carpentry for several years, Mikhael decided to quit as an orthopedic surgeon and focus on Gazwareen, his sustainable furniture business.

Gazwareen’s central philosophy matches the company’s roots in the circular economy, especially because Mikhael’s designs capitalize on the strengths of each particular scrap of wood. 

“I used to design a piece, and then find the wood to fit that design,” said Mikhael. “Now I set out with a general idea, and then let the wood guide me.” Mikhael describes each project as a puzzle, for which an ingenious solution might come from an obstacle, such as a stray, old nail embedded somewhere in the wood.

The end products of this intuitive process are striking. Mikhael’s oeuvre ranges from the birdlike Taka (falcon, in Japanese) Chair and the Eye of Horus Chair, to sturdy kitchen tables and outdoor bench seats. All items are very sound structurally, according to Mikhael, while proudly retaining the untamed characteristics of the scrap wood’s origins.

Gazwareen’s ambitious projects take time — on average, Mikhael needs one month to complete each piece. As a result, Gazwareen has cultivated a customer base that is flexible, patient, and appreciates the value of painstakingly restoring wood to its former glory. 

These buyers are generally happy to meet a slightly higher price tag, which reflects Gazwareen’s far more labour-intensive production process than for factory-built furniture. “A high quality product finds its customers,” Mikhael asserted confidently.

There lies the secret to Gazwareen’s commercial and environmental success — the belief that a broken boat can be reborn, a scrap of wood can support sturdy furniture, and a piece of rubbish can become an artwork. 


Learn more about Gazwareen through the website, Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Gazwareen

David Wood is a freelance writer and researcher based in Beirut. He previously worked in Cairo.David Wood
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