Taking Shape with Danya Ahmed
Danya Ahmed, founder of Gray Gardens Plant Studio, has always leaned into life’s unexpected twists and turns. Born in Ohio, she emigrated to her ancestral homeland of Lebanon after studying fine art. While spending two years living in a remote mountain village, she started experimenting with concrete to create raw yet sensual planters. We reached out to the artist to learn more about these architectural yet organic vessels that elevate the humble potted plant into a living sculpture.
How did your family and the place(s) that you come from shape you?
I grew up in Midwest America with a relatively conservative and sheltered upbringing. And while I didn’t have a bad childhood, I knew that environment wasn’t for me. I wanted nothing to do with the Western suburbia model I grew up in, which directly affected and influenced the type of lifestyle I would come to build for myself, and the work I would eventually choose to do.
I was essentially born with a built-in desire to leave, dreaming of what my life could look like. Not surprisingly, the first decision I made after graduate school was to move to a new country in pursuit of experiencing life outside the Western world, and to-date it’s been the most formative.
When did you start making planters, and what inspired you to pursue it as a vocation?
I had just left my job and wanted to try living outside the city of Beirut. I moved to a picturesque village in the mountains with a typically lush Mediterranean garden, with clementine trees, grapes, avocado trees, lavender everywhere... It was a slow, abundant way of life. It wasn’t long before my home was filled with plants that needed planters. I turned my spare room into a studio and started making them. There were a few fun pop-ups and events that followed, I had no idea really what I was doing, but one day after a minute of debating, I decided to take it seriously as a job.
Are there any principles that guide your philosophy as a maker?
I think I’m a slow, methodical, person with an appreciation for subtlety and timelessness, and I believe I carry those elements into my work, or at least try to.
Describe a typical working day.
There is no typical day. I’m a small studio and I wear all the hats, so it’s never the same day to day. I mostly tackle things in phases, some weeks are focused in the studio and I live in a cloud of cement dust, others I’m in front of the computer. This year has seen a lot of growth worldwide, so I’m currently deep diving into the world of logistics. There’s always something new.
Tell us a bit about your creative process. Is it quite instinctual or more purposeful with an end result in mind?
At heart I’m still a curious art student, so I work with an instinctual/experimental approach.
Which materials are you most drawn to?
Raw, natural, sensual yet simple materials.
In recent years you’ve expanded, working globally with architects, designers and landscapers. What do you love about working with these like-minded people?
They always have their own vision and it’s exciting for me to see placement and selection executed in ways I had never before considered. Also, I selfishly love seeing my work in their beautiful projects and living vicariously through them!
What do you need in your physical environment to foster creativity?
A good playlist, a big work table and no distractions.
How would you describe the creative scene in Beirut and how does it impact your work?
The creative scene is small and rich. We have direct access to artisans in nearly every industry. And because the community is so small, it’s all executed on a human scale. Its accessible. Not only that but people still take pride in the work they can do for you and with you. Which means anything is not only possible, but available at your fingertips.
Is there a dream project you would love to bring to life one day?
I think it was realizing Gray Gardens Plant Studio. Before even imagining what I would be making, I dreamt of having a studio of my own. So essentially every project is an iteration of that initial dream project. Now I just want to push my work and the studio as far as it can go.