Friday 6 December 2019

Recycle, repair, repurpose: It's time to give your furniture the 'Cinderella treatment'

We throw away so much furniture when a lot of it can be creatively 'upcycled' into stylish pieces

Upcycled furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk paint
Upcycled furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk paint
Upcycled Love chair
Rediscovery Centre Eco Store Display
Salvaged industrial lighting from Skinflint
Upcycled furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk paint
Jay Blades

Eleanor Flegg

Jay Blades is saving the world, one piece of furniture at a time. He's a "no nonsense furniture up-cycler" best known from the BBC TV series Money For Nothing and The Repair Shop. We meet at the Rediscovery Centre, a social enterprise in Ballymun, where he's about to give an upcycling masterclass.

It's a massively popular event. Upstairs, people are gathering and there's a low-key excited hum. Downstairs, Blades is decompressing from a delayed flight and gathering his considerable charisma while we talk about the state of the world. "You may think that interiors is nothing to do with the environment. It is everything to do with the environment! Just look at landfill."

I cast my mind back to my most recent visit to Ballyogan Recycling Centre. He's right. The skips were full of cast-out cupboards and broken beds. And what was that strapped to the roof of my car? A worn-out mattress. It was neither fabric nor metal nor wood. So off it went into Household Waste (large items). And then there was a brief visit to the electronic section, past a long line of defunct washing machines and all the pots of paint.

Faced with a large pile of rubbish and the simple need to get rid of the mattress, it's easy to feel part of the problem. What can one person do? But guilt is a poor motivator and Blades is inspiring.

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Rediscovery Centre Eco Store Display
Rediscovery Centre Eco Store Display

"Individuals are super-important," he says. "We cannot continue to capitalise on this capitalist society. We are burning ourselves out of our own planet and that's very silly, really. Think second-hand. Recycle. Repair. Repurpose." We've heard those words before, but we probably need to keep hearing them until we begin to change our ways.

"Recycling is nothing new," Blades says. "I come from a background that was quite poor and we were really resourceful. When I got a new coat, my uncle had it first. I thought that second-hand was new. When you're poor, that's called living. Now, my mission is to influence people I'm never going to meet. People living in council estates and engaged in naughty activity might see me making a table on TV and think - I could do that! Anybody can make a table. It's easy to do."

So far, so worthy. But when Blades restores a piece of furniture, he doesn't try to make it as good as it ever was. He brings it to a new level of style.

A Ladderax Chest of Drawers (€302) is painted in black lacquer with Badgers of Bohemia wallpaper on one side and one orange leg. A 1960s Parker Knoll armchair (€680) is upholstered in a grey woollen fabric with a neon pink inset from Designers Guild and a single pompom. And there's a mad-as-a-bat Matthew Williamson fabric under the cushion.

Like Cinderella, the furniture is transformed entirely. You can imagine the pieces sitting in the junk yard like abandoned orphans thinking: "Please pick me."

From a consumer point of view, you can buy the furniture online from Jay & Co, but you have to organise delivery or collection yourself, and the notion of driving over to England to collect a piece of upcycled furniture - however covetable - isn't really in the spirit of the times.

Salvaged industrial lighting from Skinflint
Salvaged industrial lighting from Skinflint

The alternative is to do it yourself. If you were going for a Jay Blades look, it would involve asymmetrical colour: one leg of a chair painted in a neon bright; contrasting velvet piping; or a simple standalone button in the exact right place. I'm imagining that this is in no way as easy as it looks, and that attempts to 'get the look' could end up looking derivative.

Or, you could turn to a resource like the Rediscovery Centre, which describes itself as "the National Centre for the Circular Economy in Ireland". The circular economy, in a nutshell, is all about sustainability.

The Rediscovery Centre's furniture programme, led by Gerard Griffin, is only a part of what they do. It includes workshops in furniture restoration, upcycling and reuse, but you can also bring a piece of your own furniture to be given a new life in their workshops. And there's a shop where you can buy their own ready-restored furniture, as well as other Irish eco brands like Hey Bulldog and Steampunk Studio. "Social enterprises are trail-blazers, showing us the way," Blades says. "They're showing us where we need to go and how we can make an impact on society."

While we're waiting for Blades' flight to land, Griffin takes me on a whistle-stop tour of the workshops, including the newest addition: Rediscover Paint. It's a revelation. Griffin explains that, when you're getting rid of paint, normal best practice is to bring it to your local recycling centre where it's stored as Hazardous Waste and taken to Germany for incineration.

The trouble is that non-hazardous water-based paints, which can be salvaged and reused, meets the same fate as more toxic materials.

The Rediscover Paint programme collects paint from the recycling centres and brings it back to Ballymun. Here, the genius known as Rainbow Dave (aka Dave Kavanagh) remixes it to match the colours on the Dulux catalogue. This seems nothing short of miraculous.

I ask Griffin if Rainbow Dave uses additional pigments to achieve the colours that he wants. "We have extra pigments," Griffin admits, "but Dave rarely needs to use them. He generally just uses the paints that we salvage and mixes the colours by eye."

The paints are then sold in the Rediscovery Centre's Eco Store for €1 per litre. That's a win-win situation if ever I saw one.

Leaving the Rediscovery Centre, I pass the container-like mass of Ikea, often criticised for its production of 'disposable furniture'.

There's probably plenty of Ikea furniture in skips around the country. But the Swedish store is known for promoting sustainability and, in October, Ikea Australia launched a national buy-back service. Australians can bring back their old Ikea furniture and exchange it for a gift voucher. So far, this scheme is limited to Australia but we should push to have it introduced in Ireland. It's a drop in the ocean, but you have to start somewhere.


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