Master of upcycling: it's got to be Max McMurdo

Master of upcycling: it's got to be Max McMurdo

Max McMurdo urges us all to unleash our inner practicality and creativity and join him in the immersive world of making, doing and mending

Text: Abby Trow; Portrait Photograph: Mike Trow
Upcycling expert Max McMurdo

Max McMurdo, founder of Reestore, budding telly star and author of Upcycling says we're mad not to get more involved in making stuff for our homes, especially if money's tight. Just stop being afraid of power tools and be prepared to practise...because it really does make perfect.

The word ‘upcycling’ makes as many people roll their eyes in horror as open them in wonderment.

It’s become a bit of a buzz word...a buzz hobby..a buzz little business to be in; but for those who say they like to live with things that look professional and not put together by a five-year-old or a really hopeless Heath Robinson, upcycled wares are to be avoided like the plague.  

Max McMurdo is a designer who wants to call off the cynicism around upcycling, not because he believes anything made from a pallet must be good, but because it makes sense on many levels not to throw away perfectly good materials - since throwing away usually means adding to landfill mountains.  


'I define upcycling as adding value through design'  

Wood offcuts are carved into an antler shapes with the end of each put in a metal plumbing unit
Jelly moulds make great industrial look lampshades
‘My motivations are about the environment, but I also see that the way things are going, people need to be able to make things for themselves.’ (And he is a man who made himself a floating home out of a shipping container..featured in George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces on Channel 4.)
Because lots of us haven’t been getting richer, but poorer, certainly since the ‘08 crash, and that need to conserve that was innate in people well into the 1970s is definitely what’s needed now, particularly if you’re in that group who’re finding money’s too tight to mention, thinks McMurdo. 

Ah, but there’s a bit problem in that people aren’t handy any more; most of us can’t even change a plug let alone hang a shelf or lay some tiles! ‘That’s true and I was fortunate to have a dad who was practical, took great care of things and taught me my handy skills,’ says McMurdo. ‘And I loved design technology at school, which taught me a lot - I’m very concerned this subject has been marginalised by changes to the school curriculum, because we all need it!’

So McMurdo’s solution is for people to make a conscious effort to learn to do things around the house and to learn by doing and by getting things wrong and by having another go. ‘There are lots of conflicting things going on here. For a start, we’re afraid of using tools, especially things like noisy drills - and that goes back to not learning use them in school. We also expect things to be right first time so lose patience and heart too quickly.'

Max McMurdo teamed up with Gumtree for National Recycling Week
McMurdo's latest book, Upcycling
A pallet can indeed make a useful low seat in the garden
A plastic container, some offcuts of faux grass and the stand from an office chair and voila, a garden chair
Reestore's popular Annie shopping trolley chair
Reestore's washing machine drum coffee table
Give it a go
‘I don’t accept that some people are born handy and most aren’t. We can all learn to do things perfectly well, but we need to give it time and to practise. And the satisfaction is immense when you‘ve mastered a task yourself and don’t have to pay someone huge amounts to come and do it for you.’

The financial imperative could be the driver behind the rise of the upcycling movement, if calling it a movement’s not OTT..and that has a knock-on positive impact on the environment.

‘I don’t see myself as an eco warrior, more a bit of a treehugger, but what motivates me is what I really hate, which is waste. So my design work is focused on using what we already have. And the challenge for me is to design and make cool contemporary stuff in a way that respect the planet.’ 

From cars to furniture

McMurdo studied product design and visualisation at Bournemouth University and after graduating went to Cologne to work as a car designer. He soon became dismayed by the lack to will to produce eco-friendly cars and at overmanning in the wrong departments - ‘there seemed to be 4,000 people designing one car’ after two years he returned home, fired up by a wish to work on smaller design projects and to be a designer who didn’t make more waste. 

‘I found furniture offers a more manageable scale and it’s also a very demanding field because we ask so much of a piece of furniture. Think how strong it has to be yet it should be lightweight and not cost a lot.’ 

And his own interest in using recycled materials led him to design some pieces that were met with such a positive response that in 2003 he set up his furniture business, Reestore, based in Bedfordshire. It offers singular pieces of upcycled furniture, such as the shopping trolley chair, or the bathtub chaise longue, pieces which are extremely well made. ‘I think a big mistake people make when upcycling is to neglect the finish. You need to sand, you need to paint, you need to really work on the detail and if anything, an upcycled piece requires more meticulous attention than when working with new materials.’

Television's come a' callin'
McMurdo - who appeared on Dragon’s Den in 2007 and came away for 50 grand - has, though, had to stop taking orders for Reestore products at the moment as he’s finding himself a rising television star - not that he uses the word star.

He’s appeared with Kirstie Allsopp on Channel 4’s Fill Your Home For Free, he's been on Sarah Beeny's recent Channel 4 series 'How To Live Mortgage Free', he’s done work for the Discovery Channel, and he gives talks at events such as Grand Designs Live. And he took up an invitation to work with Sugru, the mouldable glue people - adding that he told them he wouldn’t do anything for them until he’d attached a teapot to one of his glass doors using Sugru. If it was still stuck fast three months later they’d talk, if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t. It was.

McMurdo also wants to help tackle homelessness and he works with homeless charity Emmaus, visiting their shops to show customers how they can put new life and style into second-hand furniture.‘Though it amuses me that people often ignore the G-plan piece and pick up something plastic...I have to point them in the right direction!’ 

Tips from Max McMurdo
*Chalk paint is a wonderful product for upcycling furniture. You really don't need to sand - but if you do the results will be better...
*Having worked with Sugru, he thinks it's a very good product because you can fix so many different types of things with it.
*Don't have upcycled furniture all over the house, limit pieces to two or three to a room. Mix it up with upcycled, antique, new and don't feel bad about going to Ikea.
*Learn to recognise quality. Vintage G-plan and Ercol are always worth snapping up.
*The industrial style is big at the moment but don't forget the charm of shabby chic.
*Be rigorous with yourself and think hard about what you want to achieve before you start on your project.
*Be prepared to get it wrong again and again but keep going because you will master a task with practise.