The Arab Times, continues its weekly series “Insight” which appears every Monday and takes a close look at society, politics, science and technology. In today’s Insight, Mohammad Alhumaidi (above), a visionary who runs a traditional furniture store, discusses how he transformed Beit Al Cedra not only into a unique store front but a stationary memory for the cultural customs of the region.
‘People will come and never want to leave when they see the place. They tell others and they come together and spend the afternoon here sitting with me drinking tea and telling stories.’
The rapid industrialization of Kuwait shot the country into the 21st century, taking everything from the traditional family, to the home they lived in, and giving them a modern makeover. In the process, some of the customary ways of the past, like small, densely built houses were made obsolete, leaving very little in the way of historic buildings for the generations to come. However, some homes frozen in time can transport a visitor to simpler days around the family hearth.
Beit Al Cedra is one such home that has been preserved since its inception in the 1920s, and was restored to its former glory, with a modern twist by the visionary Mohammad Alhumaidi. Located directly after the Amiri hospital, the home has been hidden away from the fast-moving pace of today’s Kuwait.
Alhumaidi had dreamt of displaying his traditional wares in a home fitting of their history. His dream came to fruition when Beit Al Cedra became available, and he went about transforming the home not only into unique store front, but a stationary memory for the cultural customs of the region.
Question: When did you first open? Answer: Many years back, I initially opened in Salmiya for around seven years. After that, I moved my location to Shuwaikh, for around another six years, but when I found this place, I directly moved, because for the longest time I’ve tried to find an old Kuwaiti house. I changed a little bit, not too much, of the interior. I repainted and changed the tiling on the floor but that’s about it, apart from general upkeep. Q: Where did the idea come from? A: You mean for the house? Because it seems like it would fit; my things are antiques. To match the accessories with an old house was the way I wanted the place to look, to match my antiques with an antique setting, in a way that’s almost like a gallery; in an old house it would look better displaying them in a way that looks like a piece of history is captured in time.
There aren’t many places like this in Kuwait. The people who do this are few and far between and they don’t make a lot. I mean, there are a lot of places that sell traditional items, but either they don’t have a shop or they bring their stock from outside so the quality isn’t the same.
Q: How is this location better than the previous ones?
A: Well, actually Shuwaikh was better because it was bigger than this one, and when the place is big, you can arrange the items, and make display arrangements with more freedom and ease. However, here, even though there was more room in Shuwaikh, I like it better here because of the house. All the customers love it when they come here. They end up not wanting to leave, and this place makes them feel like they can sit down and chat, like it’s not just a store. The atmosphere is welcoming, and relaxing. I have birds singing in the background and music playing, I even have a dog, but I keep the dog inside most of the time. I’ve always loved animals. In the open space I have about five birds around. This gives a peaceful atmosphere and customers want to stay. They all tell me ‘you should make a coffee shop, you should serve coffee in here’ because of how much they want to stay, so that might be a plan for the future. To keep the furniture but mix in with it a coffee part. This house is actually two houses. Q: What makes this place unique? A: The house. The location. The history of the house is well documented; I know back in 1937, an Armenian family lived here. The father and mother worked in the hospital, the mother was Palestinian, I believe, and they lived here, and had two children, a boy and a girl, one of whom married a Kuwaiti and still lives here, and sometimes come to visit the house. The boy was even born in this house.
There’s a lot of history. We don’t have many left in Kuwait in this condition. Most of the houses have been damaged by time. Q: What kind of wares do you have? A: Everything for the house. We have all sorts of furniture, we have carpets, we have lamps, frames, flowers, everything for the house, and many of the things on sale, I make myself with my own designs. I make the furniture here, and all the small house items, the tray, the plates. If you look inside, you’ll see all the serving trays and the dinner plates with traditional accents. I do it all here in Kuwait. My concept is to mix traditional with modern. I make the designs as well. Q: When did you start designing? A: You know, even from a young age, I always like arranging the furniture in the house, and changing the layout. After that...when I opened my first shop in Salmiya, I started bringing in a few items — I always picked quality over quantity, so I would only be selling a few things — and from there I started actually designing, but not really making. When I went to Shuwaikh, that’s when I started making the designs. By the time I moved to this location, I was making the majority of the furniture.
Before, I would travel everywhere. Not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. No matter where, if I like something, and if I think they would like it here, I would bring it back with me They like home accessories a lot. They like plates, and small things like that, as long as it looks special, as long as it looks like they wouldn’t be able to find it somewhere else.
I wanted to study interior designing, but ended up in business. I’ve done other types of designing, like I have been a wedding planner, and I do houses a lot, but when I took this house, I stopped because it’s high maintenance and I can’t maintain it and run from place to place.
Q: How do you think of your designs?
A: For a long time, I’ve always liked making special things in Kuwait. Even when I opened in Salmiya, I would bring things from outside, but I would still make some of the items here in Kuwait, but now I make a lot from the blade and traditional ‘dalleh’ and ‘marrash’ and ‘finial’, I use it to put decorations on the handle, the hilt, and for decoration on the blade. People seem to like it a lot. The designs are just traditional designs from Kuwait. The thought is more just how to put them on the items.
For example the ‘arabaneh’ is a traditional moving cart, it’s not my idea. It was used in Egypt, it was used in Kuwait for vendors selling off the street. I take the same concept but the design is my own. I want ornaments or maybe more decorative wheels, so I take a table, design it, and piece it together to make a more elaborate ‘arabaneh’.
Q: How long does it take to make pieces?
A: Some of them, I’ll make the frame and then find the wood, and maybe it’ll take a week to make and then add the paint or whatever. Others, I will buy the frame ready and fix it myself.
Q: Where did the design for the interior originate from?
A: I designed it myself, it was all my ideas. You know, the house without plants, without the sound of water running, it doesn’t feel real, but if you keep something that has water running — and the one in this house is very old — it gives you something ... an essence of serenity.
When I initially took the house and started painting and everything, I planned what I wanted to do in here with the plants, and what I wanted to keep. The house always needs fixing up, so I keep my hand in it for that too. There’s wood, so you have to be aware of if water gets in or termites or whatever.
The open grill [placed in the back of the open area] was my design and I made it and built it. The designs are traditional Kuwaiti designs.
Q: What is special about the Kuwaiti design?
A: The design is traditional. The ‘dalleh’ was used before. Usually, any house inside the diwaniyah, they keep the tea and coffee only. The pattern isn’t always the same, there are simple ones with just gold, and you’ll find some designs, which are very black — like antique. Q: Who are your customers? A: Usually Kuwaiti customers, but actually I get a lot of Europeans, a lot of different nationalities from all over the world. Groups from Europe come here, mainly to just see the house and the traditional items. I get people coming from the British embassy and French embassy, even American and Mexican people. They come in groups because they know the house and any time they have visitors or guests coming from abroad to Kuwait, they bring them here to the house so they can experience the traditional side themselves.
Q: What item is most favoured by customers?
A: Actually everything. But, the items that get bought a lot are things that are used everyday; trays, plates, the housewares that are meant for daily use. But everything, even if it sits in the house for a few months, is sold. That’s because you won’t find most of the items anywhere else. The items I make are completely unique, so you won’t be able to find another piece like it anywhere else in the world. There are some things I still bring in from outside, so maybe you can find them elsewhere, though I take the time to pick unique items.
Q: How often do people come to the house?
A: Depends on the day. If it’s a weekday, people will come but won’t be able to spend that much time here. If there’s a holiday or something coming up, a lot of people will visit to buy serving trays for events. Some people come to see if I have anything new, but usually it’s busiest before Ramadan, before Eid.
Generally, they want some kind of tray or plate, something to put sweets in to make them presentable, or a table for when they set up tents and want accessories or to add a bit of colour to the place.
Q: What do you bring in from other sources?
A: I get in some cabinets from India, the carpet, I don’t make my own carpets, and some accessories, but that’s all. When I started out I would bring a lot from outside, but now, no, I try to do everything here. It’s my design; I do this because maybe if people shop around they might find the same thing in other stores, but if it’s my design you won’t be able to find it anywhere else but here. It’s something unique. I bring the paintings from China and Lebanon. Some of the photos I will paint on to stylize it and add my own frames.
Q: What do you do in your time in the house?
A: I sit here, [laughs]. Enjoying the atmosphere. No, I don’t just sit here; I work at trying to do something new everyday. I go to Shuwaikh a lot, because if there’s something I want to do, something I want to make, I have to find the material, and things like that, and when I finish, of course, directly I come here.If anyone wants something, they can make an order, and I will make it for them.
Q: How do you create the atmosphere?
A: I use the plants, the birds, the music. People can come and sit and see for themselves.
Q: What are your plans in terms of expansion?
A: I want to keep a small coffee area here. This takes a lot of time and paperwork, but it’s the next step. I even want to do Friday lunches here. I want to do something homemade for lunch by reservation only and just in the open space at 2:00 pm until whatever time it takes to finish lunch. The food I would serve is traditional food but I want to do it in the house.