In the studio: The Bobbin Project

We learn how Sumithra uses sustainability and upcycling at the forefront of her designs.

15 Jun 2021, words by Aneesha Rai in Design & Architecture

Sumithra SV

In this series of 'In the Studio', we have a chat with Sumithra S.V., a Dubai-based pioneer of reusing, upcycling and hand making furniture to transform spaces through 'The Bobbin Project'. An interior designer by profession, Sumithra helps her clients make a mental shift towards investing a little more thought into adding objects & furniture into their lives and offers solutions to make the best of their existing pieces.

Q: Why did you name your business 'The Bobbin Project'?

Sumithra: My journey into sustainable interior design started with the chance meeting of a lonely bobbin ( or spool) outside a factory. I was designing my home at that point and decided to pick them up and use them as side tables in my home. As we used it, I realized how flexible it is to be used as a side table or a writing desk or a seat and even being able to use both layers of the table top and bottom rim gave it a dimension that I had not thought of. My entry into sustainable design felt much like the bobbin that has so many facets and flexibility. Sustenance is a journey of research and identification not only in terms of materials, but also in terms of function where an item is multipurpose and thus reduces our consumption for one product for every need. So, I consider my work as a project of circular economy (which literally looks like a bobbin) that is evolving continuously.

I strongly feel that we now need to move away from the contemporary design trend from the 1980's to the sustainable era of design thinking which is our only hope for a future.

Q: Tell us about your design process.

Sumithra: At the forefront of my design process is sustainability and environmental protection. So, my journey for a new residential project starts from the current home of my client. It is imperative to understand not only their requirements but also to understand the nature of their existing elements in the space - be it furniture, curtains, accessories, carpets; all the movable items to cut it short. Then begins the process of visualising their existing furniture into a brand new scheme of design guided by the concept & theme for that space. For example, someone who has a mix of classic and glam furniture might actually be looking forward to a bohemian space that is a great chill out zone. 

So, I start to look at the elements in that space as resources, be it wood, polyester or metal that can be repurposed to create something new which can fit into the new scheme of things. By following this challenging method of element introspection, I can save those resources from ending up in the landfill. Giving them a second lease of life, the chain can continue and bring design into the thought process of circular economy. I strongly feel that we now need to move away from the contemporary design trend from the 1980's to the sustainable era of design thinking which is our only hope for a future. 

Once the elements are put together as a scheme in my studio, I need to reach out to vendors who are ready to manifest the design into reality which is a big obstacle, perhaps anywhere in the world now where businesses enjoy working with only new materials due to the freedom it gives them. So, then starts the tendering for the job & numerous meetings with different vendors to explain and create clarity of the build process with sketches and 3-D models. Once the budget is approved by the client, then begins the testing times of supervision during the refurbishment to ensure quality control. Until the resource has been converted into a usable product and has been put in its place for my client, I am on the edge ensuring the design is clearly understood and manifested.

Design process

Q: How do you go about designing something that is aesthetically pleasing and yet sustainable?

Sumithra: Can you imagine staying in a beautiful cottage somewhere in a forest in Tanzania? Would you remember the thatched rooftops, stone flooring, mud plastered walls with African artwork, a solid wood bed with a rattan headboard and two wonderfully hand-painted lights on either side? Can you feel your feet upon a woven grass or handmade woolen rug? I consider this experience aesthetically pleasing and sustainable. Sustainability is unfortunately not well defined. But to me, it's all about using local materials, local craftsmen & artisans and natural materials in a space. Moving to an urban setup it also concerns energy, water and indoor air quality. Sustainable work is almost always more beautiful not just in looks but also psychologically, the use of natural materials and warm colours of repurposed wood brings us a sense of calm and belonging. It makes us feel at home, almost as if walking down a forest lane. The concept encourages a lot of indoor plants that can pump the space with oxygen and purify it of any toxins in the air from our furniture, fabrics and finishes. The notion of glitzy, bulky, picture perfect setups as being the benchmark for aesthetics is an old one from the contemporary era that is very conservative in its perspective. Beauty is definitely in the eyes of the beholder.

Q: What are your thoughts on design and sustainability in Dubai? 

Sumithra: Sustainability has a new meaning in Dubai due its limited connection with local materials and crafts. But the city has developed into an amazing business center trading with goods from over the world. Just like in the past where the small population in this country depended on trade for many items, we depend on imports to create a sustainable bubble. Having rummaged through all of its historical sites and conservation areas, I have come to the conclusion that Dubai's biggest resource to propel sustainability is its waste. The amount of waste the city creates from trading, events, and customer service is huge and has a big opportunity to tunnel it back into the system for reuse and repurpose. Apart from that, the technological advances that the country is already making towards energy & water efficiency is noteworthy but at the core of sustainability is the question of consumption and need. So, it's paramount to reevaluate the necessity of a certain requirement before creating an alternative energy system for its management & maintenance.

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Images courtesy: The Bobbin Project

Q: Name three designers you admire and tell us why.

My evergreen favorite inspiration in thought and simplicity is Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect known for his very famous 'The Fallingwater House'. He designed for harmony with humanity and the environment. His architectural achievements bring so much joy to the space with the maximum use of natural light, ventilation and nature inspired shapes. 

Sandeep Sangaru, a product designer based out of India is my second favourite. He creates magic and music from bamboo, a material that is 100% sustainable. His design process is so intense, elaborate and so well thought out that every product or furniture that he launches has a deep story related to culture, livelihoods and the interlink between an evolving craft to a modern life. 

 Vinu Daniel of Wallmakers architects in India is my inspiration for how sustainable materials that are age old can be redefined and used in a completely new way. Their ideology of adaptive reuse of scrap and waste materials into their projects is mind blowing and they are paving the path for sustenance in architecture and design. 

Q:Name your three favorite design spots in Dubai. 

Sumithra: It's really difficult to name just 3 spots but I absolutely love the design sense of most Meraas' projects , especially the JBR Walk which was one of the first concepts for an open mall for a hot place like Dubai. The experience of spending time in a mall with the breeze, landscape, lights, pools of water and the sight of the sea is mesmerizing. When I have the time, I love browsing through show windows and retail displays in Dubai mall. They are an absolute treat to watch, experience and discover the thoughts and imagination of so many designers. Al Serkal Avenue is a great place to identify with creatives of different disciplines and engage with art. For me, it's a space for inspiration and creative engagement.