Imagine the furniture in your home. Chances are you have pieces that you're proud to use and show off to guests – perhaps it's the vintage sofa in your living room that you lovingly refurbished yourself or your grandmother's rocking chair in the nursery. But we're willing to bet there are also some bits that you'd rather toss in the tip. (We're looking at you, flat-packed, Gumtree entertainment unit.)
Now imagine if all the furniture in your home sparked joy every time you look at it, didn't cost you a small fortune to own, and helped save the planet? This is the vision Antonia Edwards saw when she launched Upcyclist in 2011.
Upcyclist promotes green ideas and consciously made products for the modern interior and provides inspiration for interior designers and homeowners alike. Antonia believes that reducing the need for raw materials is fundamental to our planet's survival but that reusing waste to create something beautiful and luxurious is often overlooked.
We spoke with Antonia about the environmental benefits of upcycling and her best tips for sourcing genuine upcycled goods and how to get started as a beginner!
How has your attitude towards sustainability changed since you started Upcyclist?
When I first decided to start a blog on re-purposed art and design, it was the creative aspect that I found most interesting – giving new life to something unwanted and making it beautiful.
I came across many creatives who were using old objects for aesthetic reasons and not necessarily because of any environmental motive. But once I delved into the subject of waste, the reality of just how much we are throwing away was horrifying. To think that plastic toys we had in the 80's are still somewhere on the planet is hard to get your head around.
I sometimes wonder why we are still making products out of new materials at all when there is so much man-made matter just sitting there with nowhere to go.
Sustainability is still quite a complex subject for consumers. I am hoping that one day they might implement a simple scoring system that allows us to easily understand just how sustainable a company, brand or product is.
Which brand/artist/designer do you find most inspiring?
I love the work of Stefaan de Croock, who makes artworks from re-purposed materials, recycled cardboard art by Warren King and Yukiko Nagai who revives furniture with mosaic.
What piece of art or furniture have you kept in your home the longest and why?
I have an old chaise lounge that belonged to my grandmother. It's completely impractical and we've always struggled to squeeze it into the tiny London flats we've lived in, but it's a lovely piece of furniture and I don't imagine I'll ever give it away.
Upcycling is an amazing way of making a product last longer. From your experience, do you think people realise the environmental benefits?
I think they do, but only if the upcycled item is as desirable (if not more) than the new equivalent. Good design is crucial to keeping products out of landfill. It's important to remember that a badly upcycled product that no one wants is not eco-friendly.
The impact of upcycling on the health of the planet is small compared to government initiatives that ban single use plastics, for example. But I believe that beautifully upcycled pieces do change the way we perceive waste and are symbolic of a cultural shift in consciousness regarding consumption.
I believe that when something really is considered a work of art, we treat it with respect and wouldn't dream of throwing it in the trash.
What do you think are the main barriers that prevent people from upcycling?
Sometimes a lot of technical knowledge is needed to work with old materials. Even if you're not particularly good at making things, there are really easy ways to transform furniture items with paint or by replacing the handles. Repainting furniture is also extremely therapeutic.
Where are the best places to find upcycled goods?
There are plenty of hobbyists selling their upcycled work online. The trouble is, there are a lot of undesirable makeshift pieces that will come up on Google images, dubiously labelled as 'upcycled', and it can take some time to get to the good stuff.
This is one of the reasons why I started Upcyclist – to showcase well-made upcycled pieces by expert artists and makers. I search for designs that have a contemporary aesthetic, whereby even the wildest designs have some beauty and interest to them.
Upcycled works are usually one-of-a-kind, which also makes them harder to find. People can always come to me for advice on where to find beautiful upcycled works.
What are your top three tips for someone who wants to try upcycling for the first time?
1. Sometimes less is more. If you find a beautiful vintage piece of furniture, it might be better to restore it rather than paint it fluorescent pink. With interiors, even just juxtaposing old and new pieces, e.g. placing a vintage dresser in front of a contemporary wallpaper, is a form of upcycling. It can give a tired looking object a new lease of life.
2. If you plan to sell your work, always think about the setting the item is intended for. Some upcycled pieces can seem quite quirky and niche but might work perfectly in a shop or cafe interior.
3. Consult experts. There are lots of upcycling workshops out there. Just like every art form, learn from the masters – the same applies to upcycling.
Antonia Edwards is the author of Upcyclist: Reclaimed and Remade Furniture, Lighting and Interiors (Prestel Publishing, 2015) and Renovate Innovate: Reclaimed and Upcycled Homes (Prestel Publishing, 2017). In 2015, she was selected for the The Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 list of influential Londoners.
Image credits from top: James French | Yannick Fradin, Martin Eliard, Marc Sirvin | Sachie Muramatsu | Upcyclist