With a focus on handmade, customisable homeware items, Sarah Saleh is connecting savvy consumers in the region with independent designers and artisans across the world at Boxed.
Your new source for design trends is a Bahrain-based website
There's lots to love about Boxed, the region's newest virtual homeware store. There's the fact that it is headquartered in Bahrain, a place, rightly or wrongly, that you might not normally associate with progressive design. There's the fact that its founder Sarah Saleh is committed to supporting small, independent designers as well as artisans in developing countries. But mainly it's because it's packed with great products.
The website may specialise in handmade home accessories, but Sarah is quick to point out that handmade doesn't necessarily mean craftsy or twee. Her mission is to create a collection of products that are handcrafted and customisable, but also contemporary and stylish.
"In this region, handmade normally means old-fashioned crafts. But we are looking for crafts that have a modern touch," she says. "We are looking for products that are up to date, stylish and useful."
Sarah has spent the last 18 months scouring the globe for products that meet these criteria, and when Boxed launched on May 30 it featured nearly 300 products by more than 20 different designers.
She hopes to add to this number on a regular basis, and already has her sights set on an additional 20 designers.
The site is a treasure trove of unusual furniture, wall hangings, rugs, lighting, cushion covers, decorative ceramics, bowls, vases and stationery. There is also a section dedicated to children's products which includes non-hazardous toys, such as the Keko Kiwi Pullalong made from locally grown timber and finished with lead-free, non-toxic paint.
There's a charming simplicity to all the products on offer, stemming from the fact that they are predominantly handmade rather than mass produced.
It's a design ethos best summed up by the Hogenbirk Knitwear stools - simple wooden frames topped with brightly coloured knitwear seats emblazoned with hearts, flowers and half moons. Hogenbirk also produces simple ottomans and vases covered in its signature knitwear.
"My style is colourful and always carries a repetitive print. I don't follow a trend but rely on my intuition," says Erika Hogenbirk.
There's a naivety to Erika's creations that is evident in many of the products available through Boxed. From the rugs by Yummi Worldwide, made up of felt balls in 60 different colours, to the ETCO vessels, made from recycled paper lined with gold leaf, there's an almost childlike artistry to Sarah's selections.
The Lotus lampshades, for example, are inspired by the art of origami and made from a single sheet of fabric that is folded and tucked together without using glue. Meanwhile, Artmind's collection of decorative ceramics takes the form of small babushkas, designed to convey a series of emotions. The pieces are left unglazed and come with names like Feeling Captured, Feeling Chaotic, Feeling Pretty and Feeling Torn.
"My style is minimalist combined with some humour. I love it when a work can speak for itself and I always hope it'll express what the buyer has in mind," says Mitsy Sleurs, the ceramic and pottery artist behind Artmind.
Rather than owning its own stock, Boxed acts as a facilitator, connecting design-savvy consumers in the region with independent designers around the world. Delivery takes an average of three weeks.
The concept evolved over time, says Sarah, who was born in the UK to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother and spent her childhood moving around the Middle East. After completing a BA in Interior Design at Jordan's Yarmouk University, she moved to Dubai and got a job designing and planning weddings. She moved to Bahrain in 2009 and the resultant change of pace gave her time to develop the Boxed brand.
"I started off with the idea of an actual store. But an actual store is complicated and it's a big investment. You have to pay rent and you have to buy all your stock. That's when I started thinking about a virtual store. But it couldn't just be a straightforward store."
Sarah recognised that she needed a unique selling point, hence the focus on independent designers and handcrafted products. "Then we added NGOs to the concept," she says. "And I want to develop that further."
The aim is to partner with non-governmental organisations that support local artisans in developing countries. One such organisation is the Inghrem Association for the Development of Artisans and Tourism, which works with wood carvers in the Moroccan village of Agouti. Boxed sells wooden bowls produced by Agouti's craftsmen, which have the added bonus of being crafted out of naturally-fallen wood, ensuring they are completely sustainable.
"We liked their products because they were well made, unique, would fit into our daily lives, were fabulous as bowls when entertaining and can be considered modern. We also loved the sustainable cause they carry - using only fallen wood and not cutting down trees."
Sarah is keen to promote regional designers on the site, although most of those currently featured are international. Tracking down good regional talent is difficult, she says, and when she has come across local designers that she would like to work with, they have often been wary and unwilling to collaborate.
"There are a lot of people around with talent but they hide it. As a new business, we would like to see more forums and initiatives uncovering that local talent. In the UK you have this concept of a pop-up shop, where a couple of designers will join forces and create a market. It would be good to see that kind of thing here."
Boxed will celebrate its one-month anniversary this week and so far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Sarah says.
"Our real aim is to compete with international standards. All along I was questioning, 'would this appeal to me? Is it special? Is it unique?'"