"Sometimes you get attached to an item because you know where it comes from and who sold it to you," says Jerome Dhulst, the founder of Antika Dubai. Jerome has spent the past three years scouring northern India for authentic, affordable, one-off furniture items that he then sells in the GCC. Some, such as a 100-year-old, 180kg statue of a baby elephant made of white marble, he cannot bear to part with.
The elephant was originally part of a pair, bought from an Indian family selling the contents of a house they had recently inherited. Jerome sold one of the statues to a particularly insistent friend but couldn't resist keeping the other for himself.
Other memorable purchases include a revolving teak chair that Jerome stumbled across in a hair salon in the south of Jodhpur - the first antique that he ever acquired in India - and two ornate wedding chests that he let slip through his fingers.
"I've only found two of them since I started doing this job. They were very beautiful, with sculpted details and little compartments. I struggled to sell them, not because I couldn't find a buyer but because I liked them so much," he recalls.
Jerome left a career in the perfume industry to join the antique furniture business in 2008 and launched Antika Dubai in 2010. From his base in the UAE, the Frenchman travels to India every few months and spends weeks searching for well-preserved, reasonably priced items to add to the Antika inventory. The company is committed to offering value for money, but inflation in India means that Jerome now has to search that little bit harder to find real bargains.
"In order to find interesting pieces but still keep our prices reasonable, I have to spend more and more time digging deeper and deeper," he says.
Jerome showcases his wares in Dubai twice a year, in casual exhibitions that last between a month and six weeks and are aimed less at selling and more at gauging public opinion. His latest exhibition is under way in the Hayya Town Centre in the Springs and Meadows communities in Dubai, where he will be in situ until May 10. The second exhibition of the year is scheduled for September and October in the same location.
Along with a selection of hand-picked antique items, Antika Dubai offers the fully recycled Scrapwood collection, which is developed in partnership with Christian Robilliard, a veteran of the antiques business who is based in Paris, and Jean Michel Andoque, who operates the EMI furniture manufacturing facility in Jodphur, Rajasthan. "Jean Michel decided to transform what was formerly a trading company that would receive old stuff, fix it up and then sell it on, into a manufacturing factory. Then we got the idea of designing furniture that was 100 per cent made out of recycled wood," Jerome explains.
The wood comes from old houses in the northern states of India that have been demolished. It is bought in bulk and then washed and treated, but its natural colours are preserved. This makes for a collection of furniture that looks worn, multi-hued and entirely unique. There are other companies creating this kind of colourful furniture, says Jerome, but for the most part they are cheating by repainting new wood to create a faux authentic look. With Antika Dubai, you get 100 per cent authentic, environmentally friendly items.
"We let our carpenters select which strips of wood they want to use so they can really be creative. This means that every piece of furniture is entirely different and that's the point," says Jerome. "Things are done in a semi-industrial way, in that the cutting, the format and the size are properly defined and quality issues are addressed, but the finish is left to the carpenters."
Any wood that cannot be utilised is given to the carpenters to take home and use for firewood or cooking. In this way, nothing goes to waste. The factory also prides itself on treating its workers properly by operating a six-day week (rather than the seven so common in Indian factories), and offering three subsidised meals a day in an on-site canteen. The factory has been recognised by Tarun Bharat Shang, a non-governmental organisation battling deforestation in Rajasthan, as a leader in eco-friendly manufacturing.
This sustainable, socially responsible approach is striking a chord with customers in the UAE, who are happy in the knowledge that no new trees have been cut down to create their coffee table. However, people still have some reservations when it comes to recycled goods, Jerome has found.
"People are becoming more interested and more sensitive about sustainability. However, they are not completely comfortable with the idea of recycled items because they think there might be quality issues, which is absolutely not the case. In fact, it's the opposite because what we are using is old wood and old wood is completely natural and has an inherent resistance. Also, we mainly use teak wood, which is of a very good quality and was used to build houses in the past. This kind of wood is not readily available anymore, so this is a good opportunity to get it back and transform it into something else."
According to Jerome, demand for wood furniture remains strong in this part of the world, although the way that it is incorporated into an interior is changing.
"Wood has always been popular; it's just that it is being treated differently now. People still use woods but with a combination of other materials; it can go with metal, steel, stone and glass, for example. Our pieces offer contemporary designs made from old, reclaimed materials. Although they are made from old woods they can be mixed with modern items, and people like that. They like the fact that these pieces offer flexibility."
The Scrapwood collection consists predominantly of functional items such as tables, chairs, wardrobes, chests and coffee tables, although there are plans to extend its scope. The Antika mantra is Bosa, which stands for "beautiful, original, solid and affordable", and every piece in the collection adheres to this simple formula.
Although wood is their main area of expertise, Jerome, Christian and Jean Michel are also looking into other recyclable materials. "We have started a partnership with a small company in India that specialises in the recycling of industrial drums, which are transformed into metal buckets," says Jerome. "Those buckets can be used as flower pots or towel holders or even bins."
These recycled buckets are showcased in Antika Dubai's latest exhibition, and are joined by a wide selection of antique and Scrapwood items. At the centre of the exhibition sits an enormous, bright yellow iron vase with 1631 emblazoned across the front and a map of India painted on the back.
Jerome has no idea what the date refers to or what the vase was originally used for, and seems unsure about whether he will find a buyer for it. You also suspect that he doesn't really mind, and that it's another one of those pieces that he might just hold on to himself.
Antika Dubai is on at Hayya Town Centre in the Springs and Meadows in Dubai until May 10. Jerome Dhulst can be contacted on email@example.com or 050 485 1583