Vintage makeover: Why rubbish what you already have when you can upcycle into hipster-chic?
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In cities like New York, San Francisco and London, upcycling is part of a trendy, eco-friendly way of life. On your way back from the farmer's market on a Saturday morning, you can trawl through big industrial spaces full of interesting vintage furniture.
A few years of living and working in cosmopolitan cities was enough to give Belfast-born Jill O'Neill a taste for it. Then, in 2010, she came back home and found that Belfast had no notion of vintage-hunting as a cool way to spend your Saturday mornings.
"People here just didn't get it," she said. "I realised that if I wanted a vintage-hunting lifestyle, I would have to create it."
Her reclaimed furniture business, Refound (refoundonline.com), started as a series of pop-up shops where she sold vintage furniture that had been upcycled in collaboration with artists.
The textile artist Catriona McCambridge, for example, has taken a dignified Parker Knoll chair and emphasised its manliness by upholstering it in a redundant military-style jacket, complete with elbow pads on the arm rests.
At around €440, it's a statement piece rather than a bargain but, as O'Neill points out, upcycling doesn't have to be the lowly of the low. In general, chairs from Refound start at around €92 and coffee tables around €100.
A few years on, Belfast had caught the upcycling bug. "That lifestyle does exist here now and there are plenty of other people doing it. I realised we needed to go up to the next level. If we use images that have been designed by an artist, but we apply them ourselves, then we can make pieces in series, rather than one-off artworks."
There are also practical advantages to working in-house. "People want upcycled furniture to be functional and not too difficult to manage," said O'Neill.
"It needs to be the right height. With upcycling you're using a piece that has a story but it's also got the bumps and scratches and a little wobble. Sometimes we can fix that, but when there's more work to do on a piece, it's easier to do it ourselves than to let an artist loose on it."
In late 2014, Refound moved to a new showroom in 1-5 Albert Square, Belfast. "It used to be a tyre factory," says O'Neill.
"Now you can grab a coffee and spend a couple of hours wandering around this big industrial space looking at vintage stuff. We get plenty of visitors from all over Ireland. We can arrange delivery but we often find that if people like a piece, they don't care what they have to do to get it home."
With the assistance of the recession, upcycling has caught on in other parts of Ireland too, often with an emphasis on economy as well as style.
"We sell plain old-fashioned re-use furniture as well as upcycled pieces," said Bernie Walsh of Busy Bees Furniture Recycling in Dublin (www.furniturerecyclingdublin.com). "The important thing is that you're keeping stuff from landfill, but it's also about taking control of the place that you live. Once a piece of furniture has been upcycled, it's bespoke. Nobody else is going to have one like it."
Busy Bees have an inexpensive service where they upcycle furniture that you already have. It might cost €70, for example, to sand down and repaint a dresser. "Typically it's a table and chairs that suit the house but the owners have gone off the colour. Why would you go out and buy something new if the one that you have is the size and shape that you want?" explained Walsh. They also run workshops where you can create your own palette bench for €120, including delivery within the Dublin area.
With a new showroom opening on Shamrock Terrace, North Strand Road, Walsh finds they cater for a wide range of clients. "We have people come in the door with five kids, no money, and the bottom fell out of the settee. We'll have something cheap and cheerful for them. At the other end of the scale there are people who like old furniture and are looking for quality."
Upcycling can also include small fixes, hacks and improvements that you can do at home. Sugru, a self-setting rubber, was invented by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh and launched in 2009 and was listed as one of Time Magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2010. It looks pretty much like old-fashioned plasticine and sticks to almost anything and sets overnight.
Because it sets as a flexible rubber it can be used to mend bendy things, like flexes. It's also heat resistant. Sugru comes in a range of colours that can be blended into others and a pack of three small wedges costs €8.99 from sugru.com.
Ní Dhulchaointigh conceived the product as "an antidote to the throwaway mindset" and designed it in bright colours with the idea that not all mends and improvements have to be invisible. A hacked tap, or saucepan lid, or coffee cup can look better, or at least more interesting, than it did before. There are plenty of attractive-looking hacks on the website, but my experience is that upcycling with sugru takes a lot of practice.
Giving old objects a new purpose in life is always a good thing, but achieving hipster chic isn't as easy as it looks.
At the upper end of the scale, Zoe Murphy of Margate screenprints images onto recycled furniture and textiles. "I have Del Boys up and down the country looking for pieces that they can sell to me, but I also work with found furniture and pieces that people already own," she said. Although her work often uses images inspired by her seaside home town, she feels that it's not about nostalgia. "It's about getting people to connect with the things they own in a new way. A lot of it is about Margate, but where you're from is a big part of your character".
Murphy's work isn't cheap - expect to pay around €1,200 for a chest of drawers (stockists and contact details on www.zoemurphy.com). "Value is a contextual think," she said. "Someone from the next town might look at a piece I'd done and say I'd ruined a good piece of furniture. But most people don't."