Chipping in with good ideas

If you were asked to come up with ideas for a collection where would you start? Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad of Reform studio headed straight to the Cairo IKEA store and settled in to observe. Read on to find out what materials the studio is aiming to bring into mass-production at IKEA.

Upon learning they would be working with IKEA, Mariam and Hend went on the hunt for what they would work with at their local IKEA store. Food packaging became their subject of investigation. In the Cairo store, IKEA sells meatballs (of course), coffee beans and chips.

Reform is a studio that sees “design as a recreation of an existing idea, a redevelopment of objects, reusing of materials, reviving of cultures and reforming our world.” Their first project as a studio was developing a new eco-friendly material made by weaving discarded plastic bags called Plastex.

With this in mind, they headed to potato chip packaging factory in Egypt. They learnt that the material of chip bags is made of layers of foil and plastic, a single packet contains up to seven layers. They saw that during the packing process both ends of a bag of chips are trimmed automatically. At the end of every month what was left was tonnes of clean, un-used and hygienic strips of silver material. When most people see waste, Mariam and Hind saw a potential fabric.

When most people see waste, Mariam and Hind saw a potential fabric.

In their studio in Egypt, they played with the material in different ways. “It’s silver and shiny, it’s beautiful,” says Mariam. They tried braiding it, weaving it and making threads for crocheting. As part of their process, they have manipulated the reflective foil threads which gives them a totally different outcome every time. They made prototypes of small circular mats, full-size rugs and the iconic FRAKTA bag.

So what does the material feel like? “It depends on how many layers,” says Mariam. “At the end of the process it’s soft and easy to have around your body – it’s not scratchy, it’s got a nice feeling.”

Mariam is not one-hundred percent sure, but she thinks that no-one has ever done this before. Recycling of chip packaging has certainly been done but upcycling the material into home accessories and furniture, as far as she’s aware, is a new process. When upcycling you use the waste as it is, not changing its form. “It’s better than recycling in that it consumes a lot fewer resources,” says Mariam.

Mariam and Hend have also paid close attention to how these products will be produced. The prototypes were produced by craftspeople on handlooms and by underprivileged women in Cairo. They don’t need a lot of education to be part of the production process, it provides much-needed, flexible job opportunities.

Mariam says IKEA designer Hanna Dalrot, their partner in the collaboration, is a “super supporter” and steadying their nerves when it comes to thinking about the volumes that will be produced with IKEA. At the moment Reform Studio’s products are only available in Egypt and London, in small quantities.

You will never guess that this bag is made out of waste.

At their work sessions in Cape Town, they have been showing their prototypes to the IKEA teams and participating in group brainstorming sessions with the other designers who are working in the IKEA house. They are exploring the details of designing for mass-production, which involves balancing customer needs and thinking about, for example, the sizes of boxes for shipping the product. “A challenge, but a nice cool challenge,” says Mariam.

They are surprised “that IKEA is being transparent and open even in the product development phase.” Mariam loves the atmosphere in the IKEA house in Cape Town. For this event, they have produced about three hundred FRAKTA bags, each made from the equivalent of 32 chip bags. Mariam says that “you will never guess that this bag is made out of waste.”

Reform Studio aims to create responsible and thoughtful products. For the studio, it all started with a plastic bag. With their design, they aim to solve stubborn problems and started from a major issue in Egypt: waste. After much experimentation, they developed the material Plastex, which has won several International Design awards. The studio consists of three designers and a workshop with a chief weaver, master spinner and cutting guru.

Hanna Dalrot is a Swedish designer with a passion about unique mass production, where you can see the handicraft in the finished piece. She has been working for IKEA since 2014.