In early July, mebl | Transforming Furniture interviewed Waad El Hadidy. We explored the implications of today's tumultuous juncture on the worlds of design, furniture and sustainability. Waad, based in Brooklyn NY, is Design Director at a global hotel brand focused on environmental sustainability.
mebl Tell us a little about yourself. What led you to this field?
Waad I have always been in love with design. And I have a second, equally-tugging half -- I love social science and working with people. I didn't go into the design world early in my life. Only later when I studied anthropology did I delve into design from a very human-centric approach. I read a great deal about dwelling and shelter -- how they signify what is meaningful and symbolic in people's lives. That reignited my passion for design. En route to a PhD in anthropology, I decided to go into design. I'm thankful that I did! Mine was a very serendipitous entry. It has only became more meaningful as I've had the opportunity to integrate design with environment and social consciousness.
mebl What anchors your commitment to environmental sustainability in design?
Waad Thinking sustainably has to be part of everything. It shouldn't even be a topic or branch of thought -- it should be thoroughly integrated -- because clearly we're not on a good trajectory. Global warming is an existential threat. That's my philosophical, maybe alarmist perspective. At the same time, I love creating comfortable spaces that celebrate and sustain nature. I am also blessed to work on fascinating projects and through them meet really interesting people.
mebl Let's talk about coronavirus. Amid the pandemic, do you see possibilities, any silver linings?
Waad (laughs) For life in general? Or for furniture?
mebl Let's stick with furniture and design for the moment! A trajectory towards greater sustainability in light of COVID?
“It's hard not to see that we have really been living in imbalance.”
Waad The pandemic has only reinforced the need for us to act sustainably. COVID is such a slap in the human face. It's hard not to see that we have really been living in imbalance. The pandemic has also demonstrated what it is like to reduce our emissions to a minimum. I think it's the only time in recent human history where we've been able to feel and see evidence of the actual impact, on air quality and on nature, when the earth gets to take a breather.
mebl Our firm is all about great furniture and reclaimed materials. Will the pandemic influence this realm?
Waad Historically, for our hotels, sustainability has centered around reclaimed materials -- giving materials a second life. That hasn't changed. But what will change, I predict, more than furniture, is layout and spatial planning. The pandemic will significantly effect that. In designing hotels, keep in mind that people rarely like to sit on a sofa right next to a stranger. That was true pre-COVID, right? And now even more so. When we design lounges or restaurants, we're mindful of not creating too many communal spaces, such as shared seating. Now there's even more hygiene and safety in the mix.
You could make the argument that everything should now be scrub-able and so on, but to what extent are we going to want to be living in such a clinical world? We're not likely to go shellac all our furniture, for example, as that flies in the face of what we are trying to establish in the first place. I think at some point it would lose all sense of humaneness and charm. At the same time, I anticipate greater sourcing and finishing furniture from local firms, as opposed to international factories.
mebl Do reclaimed materials make a difference in other ways?
“Reclaimed materials -- that have had a first life -- are evocative.”
Waad I'm fascinated by the notion of universal memory -- that there's something comforting and familiar about going somewhere that feels like it has had some kind of pre-existence. A sense of history. Sometimes you enter a space and there are objects or faces that give you a sense of connection to others connected to the space? Reclaimed materials -- that have had a first life -- are evocative. Materials create part of a narrative that triggers an emotional response. It's not like our guests know exactly where everything came from. But there's a cumulative effect -- the more you gather those stories, through objects and installations, the more you create an overall at-home feeling.
A few years ago we opened a new urban hotel. I knew that project was a success when multiple, multiple visitors commented that the space reminded them of something. That's a huge success for a brand-new building! A Honduran electrician, for example, said, ‘Oh, you know, this lobby reminds me of my town back home.’ Or another visitor said, ‘This reminds me of my birthplace in Vietnam.’ Neighborhood people walked in and said, ‘It feels like this place was always here.' And it's brand new!
mebl Amid today's powerful resurgence in the fight for racial justice, do you see or foresee implications for our field?
“How we behave in the world, how we problem solve -- all influence how we design.”
Waad I believe strongly that where we come from -- our background, our heritage, our racial and sexual identity, our upbringing -- affects how we see the world. And how we design. To ignore that is naive and silly and doesn't do anyone any service. As a designer, you bring everything you've learned in the world to bear on the work . It's very emotional. How we behave in the world, how we problem solve -- all influence how we design. So I don't subscribe to a view of colorblindness. Of course, I'm against prejudice and oppression, and making blanket statements about any group of people. But if I were running a design studio, it would have to be as diverse as possible. That's a strength.
I celebrate that we come from different worlds and we have differences. Those differences are what make our design work better. Bringing out those nuances in design work only lifts it up. For me, personally, I identify as Egyptian. I am technically American. I was born here, but I feel like I'm much more of a person of the world than an American. Others will say ‘I'm Egyptian-American,’ because they were raised here. But I identify as Egyptian living in New York. That's how I identify.
mebl Unfortunately our time's almost up. If you could be granted one wish?
Waad More edge and more open conversation. When we go to design conferences, there's little that's contentious or might ruffle people's feathers. There needs to be more engagement. That's a wish right now.