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Get Involved: The Art of Upcycling

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Get Involved: The Art of Upcycling

Don't just recycle. UPcycle.


Interested in getting involved in upcycling for 2017? This week is ‘Recycle Week’, but we’ve called upon the expertise of two upcycling experts to tell you why we should be going one step further, and upcycling furniture, clothes, art and more, right now.

Max McMurdo on upcycling

Max McMurdo’s new book ‘Upcycling’ all about projects to get excited about. Max tells Rebecca Cox why this is a great year to get involved with the recycling trend (and how you can get started)…

What is the state of upcycling in 2017?

When I started reestore back in 2002 I was told it was just a fad, it wouldn’t last and I was wasting my time! It, of course, wasn’t even called upcycling back then, I was just a hippy in a campervan collecting junk and turning it into stuff I hoped people might like. Fifteen years later and it’s going stronger than ever, we have TV shows, books and high street stores dedicated to upcycling and I couldn’t be happier!

Max McCurdo

What’s changed in the last few years?

I think the success of upcycling and professional upcyclers is the ability to move with the trends and adapt. Yes shabby chic is less popular now than it was a few years ago, but now we see the industrial design style proving popular which really lends itself to reclaimed tactile materials. Second to this I think it’s easier to upcycle than ever before, for example when upcycling a dining chair it used to take me hours to sand them back and prepare them for painting – now with fantastic chalk paints from the likes of Frenchic you require minimum prep and the results are fantastic even for beginners.

How did you get into upcycling?

I guess I actually started upcycling when I was a child watching Blue Peter, Button Moon and the Wombles! I was always making space ships from washing up bottles, my poor mum always found her washing up liquid decanted into a mug as I had already upcycled the bottle before it was even empty!

How can a nation obsessed with the new and the now get into the art of upcycling?

I think we all need to take a look at our values, do we really want disposable chipboard cold clinical designs that will be put into landfill within the next few years or should we consider spending the same money on a quality second hand piece of furniture? Upcycled pieces are usually better made, support local artisans and become a talking point in your home when you entertain guests.

How can we get involved in our daily lives?

Start simple! We are planning some really basic how to courses at Emmaus communities nationwide where we teach people to upcycle an odd dining chair. These are a great starting point as odd dining chairs are worth very little and readily available. You can learn the basic techniques to strip the chair, sand it back, painting, distressing, masking and reupholstering in an afternoon!

Is it more about art or ethics for you?

The most beautiful thing about being an upcycler for me is the fact that it satisfies my creative and social desires and beliefs. We are saving items from landfill while inspiring people to learn new skills and create beautiful items – it doesn’t get better than that!

What’s the most inventive upcycling project you’ve come across?

There are some wonderful buildings created from scrap, New Zealand has some gorgeous and thought provoking container architecture. Speaking of which we are currently planning a new show highlighting homelessness and coming up with some potential upcycled design solutions! Watch this space…

And the piece you’re most proud of?

It has to be my floating home, I bet George Clarke I could build an upcycled house for less than 50k – I succeeded but only just! 

Max McCurdo

Anything else we should know?

Against all the odds one of my dreams came true last year and I wrote my first book! The second is on its way.

This year we have started with a bang by upcycling my old family caravan into a soup kitchen serving warm food and providing support to the rough sleepers of Bedford. Please visit to follow our progress!

Max McMurdo’s new book ‘Upcycling’ is available now at Max is the 2017 ambassador for furniture paint brand Follow Max on twitter at @maxreestore.

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Antonia Edwards on upcycling

Antonia Edwards’ book is both a design and a moral inspiration which forces us to look at our consumer habits. She tells Lucy Cleland how we can all get involved.

How did you first become interested in upcycling?

I was first introduced to the term by an artist friend of mine who was painting unique illustrations onto furniture she’d found on the street. I was so intrigued by the concept and after some research realised there was a whole world of creative reuse out there. It seemed unfortunate however that the truly remarkable and innovative examples of reuse were getting lost amongst a plethora of quick fix upcycling projects that lacked style and quality. Most of the discourse around upcycling was focused on creating something merely functional rather than aesthetically desirable. What was missing, was a resource dedicated to works that had been intelligently upcycled into something beautiful and valuable by skilled artisans and artists, so I decided to create, a blog reporting the highest quality examples I could find.

We’re a nation obsessed with the new and the now, now, now… persuade us to rethink things with your upcycling manifesto…

Creating something new and current is intrinsic to the upcycling process, yet it also encourages us to value and reconsider what’s already around us rather than always looking for the next best thing. More and more people are turning away from fast consumption and turning towards conscious living, but I don’t see upcycling as a trend. The results of creative reuse are so hugely varied because its potential is infinite and we’ve been doing it for centuries. The more we raise awareness of its potential however, the more designers and manufacturers will work harder to find more sophisticated ways to reuse redundant items, in a way that suits modern lives.

Chairs, sofas, stools and benches collection from second-hand furniture sellers and upcycled by Nicole Teng

Chairs, sofas, stools and benches collection from second-hand furniture sellers and upcycled by Nicole Teng

How can we upcycle in our daily lives? Make it simple for us…

Repainting furniture is the simplest form of upcycling and it doesn’t necessarily require a huge amount of skill. Even just painting the legs of an old table can rejuvenate it. I can also speak from experience that furniture painting is very therapeutic! Simply working with second hand or vintage is also a form of upcycling. Often it’s about placing something old into a new context.

Are you more driven by art or by the ethics of upcycling?

First and foremost, I wanted to examine what I felt was uncharted territory, to explore upcycling as an artistic process. Aside from its eco credentials, it seemed to me an intriguing way of working i.e. to design and create with existing materials and objects, because it allowed for results that wouldn’t be achieved through other means. But this was also combined with an admiration for artists who have the unique gift of turning waste into beauty. To transform something considered low in value and turn it into something that really makes an impact on the viewer, takes skill. I feel that for something to be truly upcycled it needs to somehow be elevated from its status as trash. Sometimes it’s not clear why something works or doesn’t work, and although this is subjective, not all examples of upcycling cut the mustard. Skilled upcycling is a unique gift that is only going to become increasingly more important. There is a frightening amount of waste in the world and we can’t go on ignoring it, but the eco credentials of products are not usually enough for most people. There needs to be something extra that sparks our interest.

What’s the most ingenious piece you’ve come across?

There are far too many to choose just one! I think the work of British artist Stuart Haygarth is very interesting. He collects hundreds of objects such as spectacle lenses and ceramic ornaments that are completely transformed by their new configuration. I also love the work of Bokja, a studio in Beirut, Lebanon which creates really beautiful furniture from waste textiles and there is also often a poetic or political story behind their creations.

Have you made or transformed anything yourself?

I am currently working on a few ideas which I won’t disclose for now – watch this space!

Upcycling is both moral and creative, but the pieces are just – if not more  – as expensive than buying new, so it makes it undemocratic if only the rich can afford it. How can we make the message permeate all levels of society?

It’s of course hard for handmade pieces to compete on price with mass produced equivalents, however, it’s not always the case that upcycled is more expensive than buying new, you just need to know where to look for it. Most importantly though, upcycling, like any art form, is something anyone can excel at regardless of their financial status. It’s a skill that can be learned and practiced with very few and low-cost resources. Also, if the right people catch on, we might in the future see new technologies enable manufacturers to upcycle on an industrial scale.

Should upcycled pieces be practical as well as aesthetic? Does it matter?

I don’t think there should be strict rules on what upcycled ‘should’ be, but whether the piece is designed to be used or looked at, the end result needs to be a desirable item for someone, otherwise it hasn’t really been upcycled.

Upcyclist, Reclaimed and Remade Furniture, Lighting and Interiors by Antonia Edwards, published by Prestel, is out now at £29.99

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