Reusing waste materials is nothing new – “upcycling” and “repurposing” have been buzz words in furniture circles for several years, and no hipster café worth its artisan flat white can be considered complete without at least one table or bench roughly fashioned from a reclaimed railway sleeper. But now the top end of the market is taking a different approach to recycling, one which shows that, in the right hands, “waste” materials can be very refined indeed.
When designer Brodie Neill was commissioned to create a piece of furniture to draw attention to the issue of plastic in the world’s oceans for the Australian pavilion at last summer’s London Design Biennale, he immediately said yes. Neill lives in London but he was born and raised in Tasmania where plastic pollution along the coastline is ubiquitous. “My idea was to design something that transcended the material,” he says. “I wanted to treat these tiny pieces of plastic as an opportunity rather than pollution and make something where the initial impact was beauty.” He certainly succeeded. What strikes one first about the Gyro table is its iridescence – its many shades of blue sparkling like seawater in sunshine. Then, when you touch it, it’s surprisingly warm and smooth. It is sobering to discover that the terrazzo surface is made from more than half-a-million pieces of microplastics gathered from the shores of the world by a global network of beachcombers, oceanographers and marine biologists.
Equally alarming is the realisation that the table is blue not because Neill wanted to evoke the oceans the microplastics pollute, but because fish eat the red, orange and yellow particles, mistaking them for food – leaving only the blue (which is also slower to degrade in sunlight than other colours). “It is nonsense that we still drag virgin materials out of the world’s most beautiful places when we have these mountains of waste,” says Neill. “The point of elevating the material is to show that waste can be turned into something precious.”
Metal artist and silversmith Claire Malet also works with the most prosaic of disposable items to explore ideas of transformation, renewal and notions of perceived value. Her series Eroded Bowls is part of an ongoing body of work made from metal cans that is inspired by erosion and decay in the natural world. Each piece is made from a single can (Heinz Beanz and olive oil tins are particular favourites) that Malet heats and reforms before using hand tools to cut the metal that is finally gilded with gold leaf. It is a time-consuming process – a medium Eroded Vessel takes about 25 hours to make – but by the time Malet is done, the only sign of its humble origin is the seam around the bottom.
That seam is important. It is commonplace to reuse metal cans but normally they are flattened and returned to sheet steel. Malet doesn’t flatten her cans because she likes the idea of transforming an everyday, functional vessel into one that is decorative and precious. “I think it makes you pause and look at the material in a different way,” she says. “It’s about raising the status of something that is throwaway and inconsequential.”
While Brodie Neill and Claire Malet’s work disguises materials that are often all too visible, one of Lebanese‑American jewellery designer Zuleika Penniman’s latest pieces takes a material that has been hidden away and puts it centre stage.
Penniman was studying the materiality of the landscape around Dubai, where she is based part-time, when she discovered that the coral that washes up on the beaches had traditionally been shaped into bricks to build walls. “It seemed so incongruous that this delicate, precious material should be used to make walls and then be plastered over,” she says. “I wanted to draw attention to that history so I decided to use the coral to make a room divider, which really is a kind of decorative, internal wall.”
Coral Wall was launched at Design Days Dubai in March last year. It is composed of wafer-thin slices of coral reclaimed from derelict buildings, that she restored and hung within a curved metal frame. Each coral slice is held in place with an engraved gold setting, handmade by goldsmiths in Deira, the commercial centre of Dubai. It is an exquisite piece, as much jewellery as an item of furniture, which celebrates the contradictory nature of coral. “Coral looks fragile because of its delicate pattern,” Penniman says, “but the pattern is structural so gives it its strength.”
Andy Young, founder of the London-based design and build company Create Bespoke Beauty, is also driven by the desire to celebrate utilitarian material – in his case, the copper wire taken from electrical cables that he uses to make decorative trees. “I have always been interested in sculpture and I liked the idea of employing the engineering and building skills I have acquired running my business to do something different,” says Young. “When I came across all this copper cable at a scrapyard, I noticed that it separates out into multiple strands resembling branches, so I decided to use it to make some indoor trees.” He makes it sound easier than it is – first the cable has to be straightened because it arrives on a reel, then the tightly twisted cable has to be untwisted and separated by hand.
There are more than 1,000m of cable in the 5m-high, 10-branched tree he created for the House of Peroni at last year’s Summer Series at Somerset House. Despite being very evidently made of copper wire, it is surprisingly realistic. This is partly because the copper oxidises over time, mottling and changing, as wood does, and partly because the branches are suspended from fishing wire and move gently in the air, just like a real tree. (Young makes the tree trunks – which are self-supporting – by twisting all the branches together.)
British designer Paul Kelley’s repurposing inspiration comes from his own studio. Struck by how visiting clients were always drawn to his workbenches, he decided to use them not only to make on, but to make with. His Black and Gold desk (from £12,000) looks like a mysterious glossy black cabinet, but it opens out to reveal a writing desk and stool, the gold-leafed front panels of which are textured with hundreds of cuts, each one made by Kelley as he made the desk. “I use a different bench every time,” he says, “so the cuts tell the history of each piece’s making.”
Matthew Bourne, director of rug company Christopher Farr, also knows the commercial value of a good story. “Our clients are really interested in narrative these days,” he says. The company is now selling rugs woven from recycled silk saris and the backstory is certainly part of the appeal. “We use saris from the Varanasi area, which is famed for its silk production,” says Bourne. “The majority of India’s 400m women wear saris, so it’s a huge cottage industry. The old saris are torn apart and shredded and the fabric is then twisted and spun together to make yarn.”
Narrative does not, however, take precedence over aesthetics – before the sari silk can be used to make rugs for Christopher Farr’s clientele, it has to be adjusted to suit western tastes. “The first sari silk rug I came across was in loud colours,” says Bourne. “I bought it for the showroom because I loved it, but it hasn’t sold so we have developed a way of extracting the original colours [a trade secret] and then redying the silk in subtler shades that are more suitable for our client base.”
These muted, rather painterly rugs are proving very popular for bedroom flooring where the softness of the silk can be fully appreciated. “The fact that a product is made from a recycled material is of interest to some clients,” says Bourne, “but truthfully, I think that it’s more interesting to us as producers. I think it is intellectually interesting to reuse what is, in effect, waste, and using unexpected materials is what keeps us engaged.”
It is a view shared by Enrico Boffi, research and development director of the eponymous Italian furniture brand. Boffi’s most recent material discovery is powdered glass from LCD screens that has been used as a decorative detail on the lavastone worktop of the company’s Salinas kitchen designed by Patricia Urquiola. The actual process is relatively straightforward: the powder is laid onto the worktop following a stencilled pattern, then fired at 1,000°C so that it liquefies and fixes to the stone. The creative challenge is trying to achieve a uniform colour and pattern since the fineness of the powder makes it difficult to distribute evenly and the slightest change in temperature will affect the colour. But Boffi has pulled it off with Salinas – it is the most elegant repurposing of old LCD screens you could wish to find. And if waste really is to become a serious design material, then elegance matters.