Saturday, 31 January 2009

Safety in numbers

Isn't it weird how reclaimed objects in multiples can look so good, while in isolation they're just rubbish? A milk bottle in a skip covered with coffee grounds and rotting apple cores is no thing of beauty, but Bonne Plat's milk bottle chandeliers use loads of bottles to great effect. The rhythm of multiples lets your eye appreciate the shape, the colour and the shine. My friend Sim at Leigh Harmer interiors introduced them to me, but you can see more pics of them on Flickr.

This week I visited the opening of Choi Jeong Hwa's solo show ‘Shine a Light’ at the Korean Cultural Centre in London. These crazy lights are made from plastic serving baskets, and you can see them in the windows as you walk down Northumberland Avenue. The press release sums it up well:
"Individually insignificant objects become splendid when gathered together as the accumulated reflections of the ‘shininess’ of plastics under the blinding brightness of LED lights break through stereotypical notions of artistic beauty."

Friday, 30 January 2009


The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is a top read. It's about the doctor and vicar who solved the mystery of the cause of cholera in Soho in the 1850s. The book opens with descriptions of how the booming population of Victorian London struggled to process the waste it produced without the modern infrastructures that allow for that kind of thing. I won't go into detail, but Johnson does and it's both disgusting and riveting.
"It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers... bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen."
Today for the most part in London we don't have whole professions devoted to sifting through waste in order to salvage the useful bits. We do however have clever people like my friend Amy, who rescued a washing machine drum and turned it into a side table. Love the hole-punched pattern, the storage compartment, the 1950s chrome finish. If we whacked this into Heal's I wonder how much we'd get?

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Bollards not bombs

Fortunately for me, I have very clever friends, and I've been asking them for examples of upcycling that they've come across. This comes from Pip:
“I did read this about London bollards (in The London Companion p77, published by Robson Books 2004 and edited by Jo Swinnerton). Those erected in Georgian times were mostly, and enterprisingly, made from disused cannons, with a defunct cannonball blocking the mouth, in the reverse process to melting down iron railings to make weapons.”
This led me to march all around my SE1 neighbourhood, photographing examples of bollards: modern ones meant to look like cannon, old bollards designed to look like old cannon, and old bollards that I think are actually made of old cannon and cannonballs. Within an afternoon, I'd become slightly addicted to this example of necessity giving birth to reinvention, only for the reinvention to later take off in unexpected directions of its own.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

In a fix

When I was growing up, my family used the same Electrolux vacuum cleaner that had belonged to my grandparents. When it needed to be resuscitated, it would be carried in the family ambulance/minivan to the repair shop. My parents now own a Panasonic upright vacuum cleaner (with a headlight - like a car!). But to my knowledge my father still shuns it, preferring to use the old one.

Last week I walked down the street and not one but two of my neighbours had left their tired Hoovers to be collected by the bin men. It's evidence that these days it's not possible to get a lot of stuff fixed. Stuff gets bought, stuff breaks, stuff gets thrown away. The fact is it's hard to find someone who can fix your Hoover when it stops breathing, and because parts are no longer easy to source, repair is often more expensive than buying a replacement.

I'm always on the lookout for people that can and will fix things. My friend Pendle was given this amazing clock/lamp/music box for Christmas. Her brother found it at a car-boot sale, then sent it to friends who were clock repairers. He rewired the lamp and made the shade. Sometimes, it's not about recycling or upcycling; it's about finding the skills to make your googly-eyed owl clock play "Swan Lake" just like it did when it was new.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Waste not

When he was 16, Robert Opie saved a packet of Munchies. Mr Opie went on to become a consumer historian, and his cultural collateral, including the packaging from the Munchies he ate as a teenager, is now known as The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising. I think the man is a genius to have salvaged so much interesting... rubbish. The museum's new exhibition is called Waste Not, Want Not, and here's what the press release has to say:
"During the austerity years of the 1940s Britain had to economise on raw materials, save on energy and salvage scarce commodities. Encouraged by a powerful propaganda machine, a motivated population devised ingenious ways to reduce packaging and make everything last longer... Uppermost in everyone’s mind was the need to be sparing in the use of meagre resources. While few may now remember those years of rationing and blackouts, the lessons from the past can teach us how to make better use of limited resources today."
The exhibition is running 22nd January-29th November 2009.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Junk shop

Until last year, when you visited Baldwins health food and herbalist shop in the Walworth Road, this is pretty much what you saw. Ok, it would have been in colour and the patrons would have been more likely to wear dreadlocks than school blazers, but all the shop fittings were original, pretty much as shown here. Founded in 1844, the store was home to an array of ancient glass cabinets, signs advertising sarsaparilla, apothecary jars, high counters and old shop shelving.

Recently the owners ripped out all the fittings and destroyed them, only to replace them with new facsimiles. Someone agreed to come and pick up a few bits and pieces, but when they didn't arrive on time the owners smashed it all up and stuck it in the bin. Not only could they have sold all this heritage to After Noah and made themselves a bit of cash, but they could have preserved some great craftsmanship, atmosphere and flavour.

When we had to get rid of an Art Deco bar that we found in a charity shop I sort of mourned. It had been damaged when we moved house and had really reached the end of its usefulness. But I took out the beveled mirror and now have it in our dining room; we sold all the locks, handles and hinges at a carboot sale; the burr maple doors are sitting in a cupboard awaiting a new lease of life as a coffee table; the citrus squeezer and Bakelite cocktail picks are installed in the kitchen; and the cutlery drawer is now our spice rack.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Sew sew sew your bag

The Studio London, which is run Beth Nicholas and Libby Rose, is a sewing facility offering classes and resources that range from dressmakers' chalk to industrial over lockers. Beth and Libby are launching a new workshop this month called Recycle and here's what their press release has to say about it...

"We are running sewing and craft workshops in Greenwich market on Saturday the 17th, 24th and 31st January. We have all the machines set up and ready to go so take a seat with us. Each week, for 3 weeks in January, we will run a different fun and easy project for you to learn, make and take away to show off to your friends and peers…. Turn an old curtain into a glitzy new handbag, last season's skirt into a chic 50s apron to show off at your next dinner party! Bring something found or bought along to the market or use what is provided."

Beginners are always welcome, and the cost is £5 per hour or £7.50 for two hours. Check out their website or blog for other classes, including Make Do and Mend where you can make sexy slippers out of old drapes, or Brilliant Bags where you can learn to make a recycled fabric grocery bag.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Rummage not rubbish

If you don't fancy wearing abandoned bits of Underground trains highlighted in my last post, maybe some Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Chloe cast-offs are more your verre de champagne...

Buy My Wardrobe, a fashion recycling event, brings together 20 selected “Wardrobe Mistresses” to sell the designer contents of their closets at Adam St Members Club on January 31st, 12-5pm.

Nearly-new garments of Wardrobe Mistresses, including Gucci Group Executive Mimma Viglezio, TV Presenter/writer Giselle Morley and others also carefully vetted by Buy My Wardrobe founding partner, international fashion designer Kal Kaur Rai, are sold at 50%-75% off original retail prices starting from £5.

Plus, you can enjoy professional makeovers and treats from sponsors including
Eylure, Perrier Jouet, Spa Paradise. Big Shotz and The Pulse Clinique. Entrance tickets are £5. VIP tickets are £20 and incorporate a one-hour champagne priority entrance and a goody bag worth over £100 including make up and cosmetics.

Ride of your life

No one really admits to loving to travel by Tube, but after about a million journeys one does start to develop a weird affection for his or her chosen line. Above+Below London feeds on this affection - their recycled footwear commemorates journeys by upcycling moquettes (those are the patterns on the seats doncha know) into fabric uppers. This one shows fabric from the District Line. The leather trim has been re-purposed, and recycled rubber tyres go into the soles.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Turn out and renovate

There's a book I bought at the Imperial War Museum called Make Do and Mend, which was issued by the Ministry of Information to help families get through wartime with limited resources. The book is silly, but it does serve as an illustration that deprivation can be really handy for stimulating creative reuse of stuff. In other words - all this excess is stifling us, people! As long as New Look is selling super cheap stuff at 70% discount, why would anyone bother to "renovate a blouse that is worn under the arms by letting in a broad band of material in a contrasting colour under the arm reaching from sleeve to waist" as advised by those crafty Ministry of Information writers?

However, the chapter titled "Turn out and renovate" must have inspired me a little bit - as does my teeny bank balance. I don't have half the expertise with a needle required to accomplish any of the renovations proposed in Make Do and Mend, but I do know how to make things shorter. Last night I shortened a skirt that, frankly, has always looked a bit dowdy. Today I've got it on with a pair of brogues and feel ready for strolling through Shoreditch. I also shortened the sleeves of a massive dressing gown I was given. Basically, the thing is so gigantic I can't just put it in the bin - I would be like binning a polar bear. Nor can I donate it, because it has my name (first and last) embroidered (in gold) on the chest (in 86-point Helvetica). (It was a gift - what can I say?) And anyway I would live in fear that a friend would go to Barnardo's and see my name hanging there, on a rack, in gold. Too embarrassing.

These two little jobs took an hour, kept me out of New Look, gave me some garments with which to clothe myself and saved me the embarrassment of anyone (except you) knowing about that goofy dressing gown.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Bag it up

My brilliant friend Belinda loaned me the brilliant book by India Knight, Thrift. It's filled with good stuff. FILLED. But here's a little something I came across that's not so good:
"According to TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development), 900,000 tonnes of clothes and shoes are thrown away in the UK each year, of which only 200,000 tonnes are rescued for recycling. The rest goes to landfill."
Eek, so sad. But Edson Raupp is one man who isn't going to take this lying down. I came across his Suitcase shoulder bags made from resuscitated mens' suits at the V&A shop yesterday. Apparently, he trawls all over town liberating old suits from charity shops. His dad was a tailor, so he knows his way around a sewing machine.

On the way to the museum I'd seen a girl on the Tube with a bag made from a man's shirt customised with leather straps and buckles. So altogether I think I witnessed 1kg worth of upcycled clothing yesterday. Ergo, in 2009 we've only got 699 999 999kg left to save. Get busy kids...

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Heads up

Recently I interviewed milliner Janie Lawson for NorthWest magazine, and she mentioned her innovative idea for upcycling beloved old clothing. Janie offers classes in millinery, and an upcoming session will focus on upcycling.

"I'm doing a theme where you bring a dress with you that you really love but you're never going to fit into again - we've all got a few of those that we don't want to throw away," she laughs. "You can make the dress into a really beautiful hat. I did it recently. I had an amazing red printed vintage dress, and I knew I was never going to fit back into it so I made that into a hat. And it just gave me the idea that at the moment when times are a bit tight it's quite a nice thing to be able to use something you've got and make it into something new."

Janie's classes take place once a month upstairs at the Pineapple pub in Kentish Town. For £70, hat fans receive four hours of expert millinery instruction plus materials. “If you were to buy the hat that you’re going to make it would cost £160,” says Janie. “Instead you’re going to pay £70, come in, have a really nice afternoon and go away with a hat.”

Book a class on 07879 451 451 or find further information at

Thursday, 8 January 2009

India Recycled

There's a photography exhibition at the Horniman Museum about India's clothing recycling industry that's only on view until 25 January. The images were shot by Tim Mitchell and fieldwork was performed by Lucy Norris. After a visit to the British Red Cross charity shop in Forest Hill, I paid a call to see their work.

Half the show depicts the strange life cycle of old donated clothes as they travel from the UK to India. India prohibits the import of second-hand clothes as it's viewed as competition against local trade. So clothes you take to Oxfam actually get sorted and then slashed before they can be shipped out. Once they make it to India, the mutilated clothes are shredded into pulp, which is the spun into yarn and woven into cloth to make blankets. Upcycling it ain't, but this does provide an interesting illustration of how we ingenious humans adapt according to the resources available to us.

The second half of the exhibition looks at the massive trade in second-hand clothing within India. One of the most interesting shots depicts the burning of an old sari in a crucible. Old saris often contain threads of silver and gold. In today's market, even tiny amounts of these metals are more valuable than the antique garments that contain them, so there are specialists who burn the fabric to liberate the metal for resale. What if we salvaged every bit of what we throw away so that the component parts could be reused? I'm off to dig through my closet, but sadly I'm more likely to find petrochemical byproducts in the form of a Topshop t-shirt than I am of finding a goldmine...

If you can't make it to the show, see some of the photos on the Guardian website.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Easy buzz it

"Upcycling: Recycling disposes of things that might (repeat, might) be reconstituted rather than left to rot; upcycling gives objects a new use. Its American advocates cite an example of chair cushions made out of old ties, which doesn't bode well. For examples of less frightening upcycling, visit The concept is popular with Imbys, who favour anything local, until, of course, it threatens their space and privacy, whereupon they become the far more familiar Nimbys."

This quote comes from The Independent on Sunday's 2009 Buzzword Glossary. I think the author's attitude to a cushion of neckties is similar to mine toward railroad spikes as yard art, which I covered in a previous post. While I sympathise to his position, I also think he's not giving the best possible example of upcycling. Upcycling at its best goes like this: I have a need that needs to be fulfilled; I have some existing resources I could apply toward fulfilling that need; if I use a bit of creativity and possibly wood glue I can avoid a trip to Argos. Ideally, upcycling doesn't involve using stuff for the sake of using stuff - instead it should join resources and needs with maximum efficiency.

Chicken little

Refab is a company that sources vintage fabric from charity shops, upholstery off-cuts and house clearances, then turns it into lovely little animals that put the fun in function. Frankly, the world needs more mouse doorstops and snake draught excluders. They come flat-packed, so when you bring your adopted pet home, just fill him or her up with dry rice.

You can buy Refab products online or at Greenwich Market. But don't stop there - the idea of upcycling isn't just to buy, but to take inspiration when you see it, then apply it to new contexts and materials to create genius of your own.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Bags of energy

I saw these bags in a shop in south London, and learned they're supplied by The India Shop. You can't fault recycling newspapers the traditional way, but this example of upcycling illustrates the nice human element of making use of something someone else has cast off. It especially appeals to me because I secretly love crosswords. Wondering how that's relevant? Here's some information from their website:
"Our newspaper bags are made by an NGO whose main objective is to provide education and shelter to street children. This eco-friendly product is made from recycled Indian newspaper. The organisation was started in 2004 by street children who wanted to give something back in return for the opportunities which had allowed them to escape desperate circumstances. These elder children, now married with children of their own, generate an income by making newspaper bags and jute items. This allows them to take care of thirteen street children that they have saved from the streets surrounding Delhi train station... The newspapers are collected by one man on his bicycle rickshaw calling at residential homes for any read newspapers. This is why sometimes your bag will have a completed crossword! These bags are now supplied to many shops across the United Kingdom in place of shop plastic bags."

Ikea idea

In our really small home, everything has to fold up and become either flat or invisible when not in use. When we moved out of our last place, which was marginally larger, we couldn't keep lots of things, including a shelving unit from Ikea called Molger. It's designed for the bathroom in walnut coated with lacquer to make it waterproof. In its first incarnation we took out two of the shelves and turned it into a coat rack by rigging up a horizontal pole at the top for hangers in our best Macgyver manner. After moving I couldn't bring myself to get rid of the wood though. The slatted shelves found a home on the balcony - they keep plants off the concrete floor and allow for drainage when watering. And the two sides became a clothes horse, once The Real Gent installed a couple of hinges. It looks good enough to lean on the wall, which is fortunate because we're low on closet space, and when guests visit this is their towel rack.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Home work

For several years I edited a magazine called Living South which covers south London. During that time a writer named Andrea Hensher pitched me a story about a family living down the street from her. The Shipp-Hills have committed to using found objects throughout their homes and their lives, relying on retail stores pretty much only for food. Photographer Charlie Pinder took some gorgeous photographs, and you can view a selection on Charlie's website. Since upcycling has to do with customisation, a simple how-to guide is rarely going to suffice; Charlie's pics are great because the ideas they contain might provide just the inspiration needed to translate some Shipp-Hill solutions into your own space.

Andrea came to know the Shipp-Hills when they knocked on her door and asked if they could rummage through the skip in front of her house, which was overflowing with rubbish from her house refurbishment. One man's junk is definitely another man's treasure, and this inventive family exemplifies the notion that there's enough durable, useful stuff already in existence on the planet to put shopping malls out of business. So have a look at Andrea's article - it might to inspire us to put our credit cards away and make a withdrawal from our personal creativity banks.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Oh nuts

When we were walking in my hometown cutting through the back of my old high school's parking lot, The Real Gent asked: "Hey is this a pecan?"

There had been a lot of wind the night before and it had knocked all the nuts out of a gigantic tree that I had never noticed before. Since the pecans had been lying there only a matter of hours, the squirrels hadn't tucked into them yet and they hadn't had time to start rotting. We scrambled on the ground, we stuffed our pockets, we went home and obtained further tools. Then I forced everyone in my family into labour as the nuts were prised from their ornery shells. My dad got a blister, TRG got two sore thumbs and I got a bit of nutshell in my eye. Once I'd regained my sight, I wrapped them up and gave them to friends as presents.

One of my early American forefathers, Mickleberry Merritt (not joking, that is his actual name), earned his living from a fruit and nut plantation in southwest Georgia. More recently, my grandparents had three pecan trees in their yard and spent every winter cracking nuts and making things with them. The idea of getting something nice that would otherwise go to waste for absolutely nothing is a pretty satisfying concept, and apparently in my family it always has been. It just goes to show you should watch where you're going - there's some good stuff lurking on the ground.

Paper product

When I was visiting my parents in the US last month, I stumbled on a rusty bit of metal in the yard. It took me ages to work out what it was... An old gate latch? The innards of an old machine? A mechanism for harvest? Turns out it was some yard art. I don't know if yard art will ever catch on outside of the US. Surely the garden itself is supposed to be art, and weird pieces of old rail ties bent to look like a little man playing saxophone (as in the case in my parents' back 40) is something else altogether...

Aside from yard art, when someone can take an object in existence and give it a totally new life and a new context, I get excited. The work of Su Blackwell was featured in the December issue of House & Garden magazine, and I love it. She uses old books to create sculptural vignettes by cutting their pages to form a story in three dimensions. Her work will be on show at the Courtauld Institute from 26th January.

Fruit of the heirloom

"I came upon a trash bin loaded with basement scraps: water pipes, furring strips, two-by-fours studded with nails that could be straightened out. From these scraps, I saw in a flash of insight, I could construct a seed-germination rack. In the gardening catalogs, a deluxe seed-starting kit, complete with full-spectrum light and soil-heating mats, cost $800. Which I didn’t have. What I did possess — or so I fancied — was a farmer’s resourcefulness..."
Tim Stark graduated from Princeton in 1984, which is how I came to read his story A farm grows in Brooklyn in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. (Let me tell you, it's not all that fun to have graduated from a college where the alumni are so successful that they need to tell you about themselves not monthly but once every seven days. Actually, the magazine comes out every two weeks. But still.) Tim began cultivating heirloom tomato seeds in his Brooklyn brownstone as a diversion from his career as a writer. He drove the seedlings to land where he'd grown up in Pennsylvania and started a little vegetable patch. Tim's book Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer is published by Random House, but if you're economizing I recommend reading the article.

Tim's story is inspiring because not only did he craft a seed germinator from his local rubbish bin, but he made a career out of juicy little numbers like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter. After all, heirloom non-hybrid seeds like these should be celebrated and enjoyed — they're the ultimate example of cradle-to-grave recycling.

Coffee can-do

It seems silly to buy new things when old things can do the job just as well and are more interesting. My dad loves Luzianne coffee. It’s made with chickory and is an acquired taste. He acquired it because it’s what my grandfather drank, and now my brother drinks it too. I don’t really like it but I do like this can. It’s perfect for holding plastic bags, and also reminding me of my grandfather, who is no longer living, and of my dad, who lives 6,000 miles away.

For more pictures of my upcycled old coffee cans, see