The great upcycling revolution is upon us.
The pandemic gave us many things aside from just a dry cough and a loss of taste and smell - hard to believe, I know.
Over the last two years starved of stimulation, many of us started side hustles, took up new hobbies, and accumulated a greenhouse’s worth of houseplants, searching for creative outlets to ease our collective boredom. Plus - after months on end of looking at the same old weathered sofas and wobbly kitchen tables - many people decided to reach for their paintbrushes and give cherished old furniture a new lease of life.
Well now that the pandemic is over, “upcycling”, the act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and function, is still very much en vogue. Interiors enthusiasts up and down the country are eschewing buying new products in favour of a more sustainable way of living - revamping what we already have and salvaging second-hand bits and sprucing them up to their former glory.
According to a report by E-On Energy, nine in ten Brits cited being more sustainable as their top priority for 2022. In the last year, there has been a boom in clothing rental platforms like Hurr and Rent the Runway, and charity shops in the UK have reported a surge in second-hand clothing drop-offs.
The move away from fast fashion has been mirrored in the world of homeware and championed by Gen Z and Millennials who named climate change as their top personal concern in 2021, ahead of unemployment and disease prevention.
Your guide to upcycling furniture, according to a pro
Jay Blades (MBE), an expert furniture restorer and presenter of BBC’s The Repair Shop, explains how upcycling can help the planet and ease the strain on your wallet. “Upcycling furniture or buying second-hand helps to protect the environment, that’s the biggest pro there is,” Blades enthuses.
“Not only do you give an item a new lease of life, but you are also ensuring it avoids going to landfill – happy days! Upcyclingfurniture rather than buying new is also a big money-saver and means you can make something your own. What’s not to love?”
Below, he shares his top tips for upcycling furniture yourself.
1. First things first: take things slow
Blades is currently a brand advocate for Volvo, who have developed an eco-friendly fabric called Nordico made from recycled PET bottles and corks from the wine industry. This was in a big push by the Swedish car brand to eschew leather and reduce their carbon footprint. “That’s a great example of being mindful of materials and making creative choices to be more sustainable”, explains Blades, who subscribes to the Slow Movement.
Much like the slow food movement, the design iteration aims to move away from quick, bulk production and refocus on careful workmanship that ensures longevity and quality. “We don’t rush a piece, whether it’s in our online shop or through a bespoke commission. We’ve had commissions last for over a year because things change. Circumstances, preferences, homes. You set the pace and take your time. Because when you do, you’ll appreciate a piece even more and get things just right,” Blades writes in his website manifesto.
2. Be inspired
Instagram is littered with “inspo” accounts with a growing army of textiles and interior designers posting beautifully curated images of restored furniture and salvaged antiques every day.
Designers like Rose Uniacke, Camilla Guinness and Nathalie Farman-Farma regularly upload swoon-worthy images of eclectic Italian farmhouses and restored art deco furnishings to whet the creative appetites of their many thousands of followers.
Plus, Instagram and Pinterest are a veritable treasure trove of inspiration for anyone interested in upcycling and unsure where to start.
3. And don't be afraid to look further afield
It’s not just Instagram driving the upcycling bug, British-born Italian designer Martino Gamper has been touring his critically acclaimed show “100 Chairs in 100 Days” for almost a decade. Gamper was inspired to upcycle a chair a day for 100 days after collecting disused chairs from alleyways and friends’ homes. Instead of creating new objects from scratch, he challenged himself to design poetic and humorous designs with only the limited materials and time at hand.
Speaking of the exhibition Gamper posed the question: ‘What happens to the status and potential of a plastic garden chair when it is upholstered with luxurious yellow suede?’ The project was exhibited in London in 2007, at the Milan Triennale in 2009, and at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, in 2010 and is about to be shown in Australia.
4. Make a plan
Interested in sustainability or simply can’t part with a tired piece of furniture that just needs a bit of love?Blade’s number one tip is to make a plan.
“My top tip with upcycling furniture is to make sure you have a plan before you start anything. In craft we have a saying: measure twice and only cut once. This means you have to prepare yourself for what you are going to do, both in terms of what you want to achieve and making sure you have the right tools and materials.”
5. And learn the craft
So far, so simple. Once you’ve decided what you want to upcycle and how you want it to look, it’s time to head to Wickes, right? Hold your horses, advises Blades, it’s useful to next think about honing a craft.
“To be able to plan, you have to learn the craft,” he says, “Whether that’s different techniques to restore something, or learning about material reactions, learn as much as you can.
For example, you may use a cleaning solution on one piece of Victorian furniture and see one reaction. Put that same solution on a mid-century modern piece, and you’ll see something completely different. Learning about different processes will inform your restoration ideas and help make sure you get the most out of it.”
6. Follow a tutorial
Once you’ve been inspired, got your plan mapped out, and picked up the right materials (chalk paint, for example, is better than normal wall paint for repainting furniture), you can get started in earnest.
It can be helpful at this point to follow a step-by-step guide or a YoUTubetutorial like those available on Hermione Chantal’s channel to make sure you’re on the right track.
Now you’ve got the basics, what are you waiting for? You'll be upcycling furniture in no time.
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Juliana Piskorz is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. Over the course of her career she has written for a smorgasbord of magazines and national newspapers including The Sunday Times, Dazed and Confused, the Independent, the Guardian, Refinery29 and The Face among others.
Before going freelance, Juliana was the Digital Editor at the Evening Standard Magazine and a Staff Writer at the Observer Magazine.
Juliana has a partcular interest in art, fashion, travel and the pop culture.
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