From junk shop to haute craft: the rise and rise of upcycling

From junk shop to haute craft: the rise and rise of upcycling

We've taken making do and mending to new heights, with imaginative, often innovative products made by skilled craftspeople.

By Noah Dugall and Hari Alexander
Leather cube doorstop by Elvis & Kresse

Elvis & Kresse make upcycled products from disused fire brigade hoses and from leather scraps. Pictured above: leather cube, 17x17x17cm, is ideal as a doorstop, £60, available in brown, black or caramel. Upcycling is as old as the hills, but there's been a renewed zeal for it since the recession. And we've all started calling it upcycling.

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Roger Oates of the eponymous rug company doesn't think once the world is back in relative financial clover we'll all be back to wanting everything shiny and brand new. 'I think we realise that materials are finite and we have to avoid waste,' he says. 'In the old days perhaps there was something a bit hippyish about making things from what might have been someone else's rubbish, now the fact that design has come into it means perceptions have changed.'

He argues we've cottononed on to an integrity about upcycled products: 'We respect the effort that people put into making quality goods from existing products or reusing amterials, it's inate in us. I don't think we want to go back to the throwaway behaviour of recent decades.' 

Upcycling is nothing new, of course, people have always mended things, sanded and repainted things, taken a bit of this and put it on that. But all this common sense activity didn't have a name and those handy types tended to do it for themselves or for family and friends. Now upcycling is cool, it's trendy, it's mainstream. Online businesses selling the revamped preloved are proliferating and the quality of goods on sale is anything but tinpot

Recent design graduate Sam Sheard made this bench gorgeous bench by decorating it with waste leather offcuts from Alma Leather
Out of the Dark is a social enterprise that epicycles old furniture
Airline trolleys are upcycled into useful storage items by Swiss company Trolle Iacobucci
Roger Oates' Upcycled Rugs are made from scraps of wool that not so long ago would have been skip-bound, from £175,
Trolle Iacobucci can 'fit out' your airline trolley as you require...slender kitchen storage with bread board on that's useful
Teacup chandelier by Madeleine Boulesteix.

Artist and designer Madeleine Boulesteix has been an upcycler for many years, long before the term hit the high street. For her, re-using everyday objects - in her case kitchen utensils to make charming, quirky, elegant chandeliers - satisfies many needs.

And perhaps the essence of those needs is the fact that while people are neophilic, the equal and opposite reaction to that is the desire to conserve. Which can obviously become a disorder in hoarders, but most of us are glad to think of creative people doing clever things with pieces of discarded sail cloth, metal, carpet, glass or plastic pots, even if we can't do it ourselves.

And as the pieces we're offered have become more sophisticated and design-led, so whereas once we might have been sniffy about having second-hand furniture, now we're welcoming the upcycled into our homes with open arms. 

Hannah Ricci of Staffordshire online upcycling, vintage and antique business Ruby Rhino says the recession has been an ill-wind but it's not been the ill-wind that blows nobody any good. 'I think it's definitely had a big part to play in the growth of upcycling, with people thinking more carefully about where they're spending their money and becoming more resourceful when they need new furniture. I also think there is a growing appreciation for old furniture as it is unique, hand-crafted and has stood the test of time.

Sail Cloth sofa by Quba & Co, £2,000.
Useable areas of worn-out carpets are cut out into a fish shape to make fun rugs, ideal for children's rooms.
Lucy Turner uses laminate to transform old pieces of furniture in gorgeous contemporary design. and
Ruby Rhino takes old furniture and restores it to full usability
Mirror made from reclaimed timber from India £150, 85cm dia
Deckchair seat made from old sail cloth by Quba. £150

Designer style

Upcycling can mean cottage industries that serve their local area, but professional designers are also increasingly turning their attention to making new from old and their works can be seen on online platforms that specialise in upcycling and vintage. The Mint List has a great selection of pieces and both sites have stock that changes regularly, since one of the many good things about upcycling is that products can't roll off a production line forever. 

The Mint List is a good place to buy products from award-winning Out Of The Dark, the social enterprise that trains young people to restore furniture. It takes discarded items such as chairs, sideboards and desks, refurbishes the wood and transforms them from dull brown case goods into vibrant, brightly colour pieces.

Jay Watson is an independent designer who likes to use waste materials and products in his work. He's made a seating cube from waste newspapers, for example, and can send out instructions for people to make their own, as well as lampshades from socks, and he's showing his Just Desserts pendant light that uses glass pudding bowls as shades during this week's Clerkenwell Design Festival in London. 

Quba & Co is a south Devon-based company that brings old canvas sail cloth back to life by using it for clothing and more recently for homewares. The company, which started way back in the dark ages of 1996, offers smart, hardwearing sofas, beanbags and deckchairs - perfect for those with a love of the sea.

Table by Elvis & Kresse for a Wahaca restaurant  is made from reclaiimed scaffold planks, and the lights are coffee sacking and parachute silk.
Encaustic and vintage tiles are restored by The Vintage Tile Company. Design service available.
The Old Radiator Company refurbishes original cast iron radiators.

Reclamation, salvage and restoration merge with upcycling

It can be a fine line between reclamation/salvage and upcycling. While reclamation yards such as Lassco and Stroud-based MASCo offer salvaged products that customers may then need to work on themselves - for example by finding their own metalworker - some in the salvage business do the restoration work for customers and so in a sense you can apply the term upcycling to the finished products.

The Vintage Floor Tile Company, for example, sources antique encaustic and decorative ceramic tiles and cleans and restores them. It also offers a design service and can recommend installers. The Old Radiator Company, which like MASCo and The Vintage Floor Tile Company is part of the Reclaim and Reuse Group owned by Andy and Fiona Triplow, also offers fully refurbished products. These are proving popular among those of us who have less time to sort things out for ourselves, or feel we lack the practical skills to take a sow's ear and make a silk purse from it. 

'The Old Radiator Company actively purchases old products and carries an ever-changing stock of 4,000,' explains Triplow. 'Customers can have whatever they want in terms of style and finish and all radiators are supplied fully tested and compatible with modern central heating systems.

'The company has moved away from the concept of a generalist salvage yard to be a specialist supplier of refurbished original items. This is labour-intensive and involves modifying radiators as required, blasting, testing and painting them, all of which is done in-house.' says Triplow. 'Customers range from a homeowner wanting one feature radiator to owners of of large houses wanting their whole property in matching radiators.'

Others have come to upcycling via salvage, for example Dorset-based Elvis & Kresse, which launched in 2005 to buy up decommissioned London Fire Brigade hoses. Kresse Wesling, co director, says the company found itself being asked to undertake furniture commissions, and it's made tables from scaffold planks and light shades from coffee sacks and parachute silk, for example, reclaiming and recycling being in the blood.