Sustainability starts at home. No one knows that like Shang Wu, the creative force behind PAYA Home. He and his team of craftsmen have committed to never cutting down a single tree in their pursuit of creating homeware. Even if that means they may cease to exist at a certain point.
While adopting a greener approach to living often starts with small habits like forgoing plastic water bottles and straws, it truly makes an impact when it makes its way into conscious eating, composting, adopting renewable energy, thrifting clothing, and opting for slow craft, reclaimed furniture. All these practices use our existing resources instead of creating demand for the new and leaving the 'old' to sit in landfills.
Eco-practices like these also instil a greater appreciation of the objects and things in our lives, fostering a greater sense of satisfaction that makes the home a more positive place. This is precisely what wabi-sabi endeavours to teach us. We believe a truly happy home is built with sentimental value, gives back to nature, and allows us to reflect inward. This is what Paya Home aims to achieve with its sustainable homeware.Exclusively working with reclaimed wood that features the mesmerising weathering of a life well lived and fashioning it in a way that highlights these features. We sat down with Shang Wu to discuss his journey from law enforcement to furniture, views on creating a more sustainable way of life and finding the right craftsmen.
Let's start with the big question. What makes sustainability so important to you?
That's just at my core and my promise to the world. I don't see why we must sacrifice one thing to create another. Several trees sit in our yard, and when my mother insisted on cutting them down, I wouldn't let her. Trees are essential to me because trees represent life so vividly.
I want to protect and nurture the earth so badly that I don't even want a plastic bag when I go to the supermarket. My daughter is the same, she's only three years old and knows nothing about environmental protection, but I always tell her one thing: Your money is your own, but the world's resources are everyone's.
What about when you were a kid? Was this always what you wanted to do?
No, I never dreamt that I would make furniture when I was a kid. When I was younger, I wanted to be a banker, and I don't know where I even got this idea, but I was absolutely going to be a banker! I had toyed with the idea of being a lawyer or even a designer. In the end, I wound up being nobody. Actually, I became a cop, which I never truly enjoyed.
So from policeman to the owner of a sustainable furniture brand, how did that leap happen?
Let's call it fate! I took the wrong road one day when driving to a ceramics store. After wrong turn, after wrong turn, I met a man crafting a swing in the middle of the forest. He had set up his workshop there and was making all sorts of people in the village nearby. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of creating something with my hands and thought maybe he could teach me, or even better, perhaps we could work together.
Over the following weeks, we made the arrangements and began looking into all the wood we could salvage to create our furniture with. There were plenty in the village nearby that were just sitting there waiting for a new purpose. But he didn't hold up his end of the bargain. He vanished as soon as I gave him a lump sum of money. It was enough money that he was willing to leave his workshop behind, with all the materials and tools still in it. I later found out he used the money to fund some bad habits; that was the last I saw of him. I was left with no woodworking knowledge and little to no money.
Where did you go from there?
To the nearby village to find craftsmen that would work with me. Of course, anyone with any real skills wouldn't even meet with me. Who was I? So, I had to lie, which I'm not proud of, but it paid off. I told them if they came to work with me, eventually they would earn ¥500 a day and that I had the money. Luckily, it all worked out, but there were months in the beginning when there were no orders, so I'd send them to help villagers build new homes.
I uttered that lie over 10 years ago and exceeded my promise, so now we can laugh about it!
What's been some of the challenges you face being a sustainable homeware brand?
While I still have tens of thousands of reclaimed wood pieces sitting in my workshop, I worry that this industry will suffer. It may soon get harder to find viable materials, particularly when materials like plastic and steel are often favoured. But I know my principles will remain the same if and when that time comes. Paya is not Paya without the use of weathered, old wood.
Another challenge we face is the perception of salvaged materials, and the wabi-sabi idea of imperfection is perfection. I did have a friend who commissioned a chair from me, and while he knew I worked with aged timber, he scolded me when he saw the piece. All he could see were the fissures and holes from its past life as a support beam in a home. He was convinced we had been rough with the wood during crafting. He couldn't appreciate what it is to love a flawed beauty.
Some people may not resonate with these ideas but embracing sustainability is nothing more than appreciating the world in its raw and natural form. Everything can be appreciated if you present it in the right light. Like a dry branch, no one cares about it. But if a florist takes it, places it in a beautiful vase, and the light hits it just right, this becomes a piece of art. There are many beautiful things in the world that aren't classically appreciated; you just need to have the right eyes to find them. And when you do, you'll want to preserve that by leaving the earth better than you found it.
But there must be people who treasure these facets of your designs?
Of course, I am delighted to see that many of the younger generations can appreciate this aesthetic and its philosophy. It's really gratifying to see! This gives us the power to create more beautiful things. It's important to work towards making our homes more humane. Not just to make furniture that looks good, but to have homeware that keeps you grounded and exists for the right reasons. To build the right culture within our lives that are driven by our compassion.
Beyond that, what's your philosophy in life that you'd want other people to know?
Just to keep things simple.
“Old wood is nothing without its cracks, just like people are nothing without their culture” - Shang Wu, Founder of Paya Home