The Art of Upcycling: Getting creative with Junk is On Trend

“The alchemy of the 21st Century is to convert waste into things of utility and extend the life of objects.” Design Indaba founder, Ravi Naidoo, affirmed this during a 2013 interview with Dezeen as he gave a tour of the former industrial suburb of Woodstock, Cape Town. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that today, “upcycling” continues to be THE buzz word of the moment in the fashion and interiors industries. However, the term tends to be used incorrectly, often used as an in vogue alternative for refurbished old furniture. Instead, upcycling is the act of taking the inherent parts of a redundant object and creating a new and useful object.

Bicycle Wheel Clock [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

But it shouldn’t be confused with the term vintage. Upcycling – also known as repurposing – goes beyond just reusing an item. It’s about seeing everyday things in a new way, and finding a novel, ingenious and unexpected use for it. It also reduces the use of virgin/raw materials kicking up the sustainability in the world of design. As Creative Pool describes it, “ It’s about fixing something up but keeping the scars intact because the real character is in the scarring.” In doing so, it takes it from its purposeless state to a new life and worth level. Since it requires fewer processes than in recycling, it works out as an even more eco-friendly and sustainable practice.


Vintage forks , together with timber off cuts from our workshop become displays for air plants. [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

And if the ‘save the planet’ aspect wasn’t enough. Upcycling has become an ingenious new art form that’s encouraging individuals to not only get aesthetically creative with waste, but to do so with quality inspired finishes. There are already several designers on the continent that have mastered the art of seeing the potential in the long expired and unconventional materials. Here are just a few adapting castoffs into extraordinary pieces.

Vintage Motor Standing Mirror from 1960’s Beetle [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

Inspired by her commitment to renovate a broken garden chair, interior designer Katie Thompson, launched Recreate in 2009. It’s a repurpose furniture and lighting store in Woodstock, Cape Town that brilliantly reflects her vivid imagination, and her deep dislike to deem anything as useless or worthless. This self-proclaimed hoarder, takes rejects from garage sales and unwanted discards to handcraft quirky furniture and homeware accessories. With high-end finishes, she imbues each piece with new life and function, adding quality details that make them unique and filled with unmatched personality. While she creates a variety of pieces for her series, her suitcase chairs made from actual vintage suitcases and trunks remain the most iconic for the brand.

Typewriter Lamp [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

Suitcase Chair [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

Upholstered linen Ottoman tub [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]


Eat Cake

Another Cape Town designer, Kendall Conlong, started her quirky label ‘Eat Cake’ in 2011. She’s most known for her eccentric range of origami chandeliers, which she makes with flocks of dainty paper cranes. All her creations are hand-made and breathe life into waste products. For the ‘frivolous flock’ range she used discarded magazine paper, aged music sheets as her tool of choice for her ‘prodigy’ range and quite wittingly, old maps from hospices for the ‘jetsetter’ range. All these materials are easily bin-worthy without a second thought, but she’s managed to turn them around into outstanding, eco-friendly décor pieces. She does more than the chandeliers though; often taking on customized projects as well as her own assortment of innovative pendant lamps made from converted classic glass jars.

Frivolous flock chandelier [Image: Courtesy of Eat Cake]

Frivolous flock chandelier [Image: Courtesy of Eat Cake]


Tin Roof Café- Karen

Sometimes the upcycling inspiration comes from the interior design of the establishment. The Tin Roof Café in Karen has managed to consciously use upcycling throughout the eatery. Abbie MacAndrew, the Co-Director and creative mind behind the Tin Roof’s look, fashioned it after her love for cafés. The floral print that covers the adorable metal like chairs and booths? They’re all old materials she sourced from mitumba and tailored to fit. The lampshades and table vases are actually chicken feeding buckets that are made by a gentleman called Isaac just up the road from the cafe. And the tall, conical bar stools closest to the kitchen are cleverly re-used milk churns that sometimes come with the cutest fluffy wool seating covers. Did we mention the wall storage space where the coffee is set on display are in fact old drawers? The café is choc-full of inspiration in addition to the great food, if you’re looking for the extra motivation to get your DIY project going.

[Image: All in Good Taste]

[Image: Treats on a Budget]


Amadou Fatoumata Ba

Mad about tyres? Amadou Fatoumata Ba is, so much so that he devotes his time to creating sculptural furniture from them. The Senegalese artist spends his time scavenging for discarded tyres and at night gets to work; letting the piece speak to him and guide him on the direction it should take. Although his work isn’t focused on sustainable design, being more fascinated with the history of the tyres, his pieces are functional furniture. He also creates art pieces from the tyres too. Drawing inspiration from their indestructible nature, he started his work in 2001 and even fashioned tools to help him work with this study material. I took him just a year to launch his initial installation, African Tempo. Years on, he continues to make chairs and sculptural structures in his studio in Dakar.

[Image: Courtesy of Amadou Fatoumata Ba]

[Image: Jean hyphen Baptiste Joire]

[Image: Courtesy of Amadou Fatoumata Ba]


Lilly Loompa

Lizl Naude, a Johannesburg furniture designer and entrepreneur, works to transform rubbish into beautiful furniture. The self-taught designer launched her “Rubbish Range” of furniture last year that was made from, you guessed it, waste material in a bid to go green. Naude began designing roughly seven years ago, since she couldn’t afford to splurge on new pieces for her home. After some research, she realised much like fast fashion in clothing, people toss out a lot of usable material. With these tools, she could design furniture for her home. Most notable from the rubbish range is her lamps; the “Tin Can Lamp”, “Pixar Lamp” and the “Barely Hanging Lamp”. The last two lamps in particular carried a lot of history and thus she intentionally kept their chipping paint intact.

[Image: Courtesy of Lilly Loompa]

[Image: Courtesy of Lilly Loompa]


What’s not to love about upcycled objects? They are a great avenue for expression, cost reductive and highly sustainable. As a designer, it’s understandable why you may be hesitant to jump on this trend wagon. Consumers are still very dependent on fast consumption. It would take time to create the pieces, and we know modern consumers don’t like to wait. Then there’s the fact that most clients don’t ask how to maintain, repair or pro-long the life of pieces. Clear indication that they don’t quite purchase things with the long term in mind.  Perhaps doing this on a large corporate scale might just be a far-off dream.

Industrial Factory Trolley Coffee Table [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

However, that doesn’t stop you from doing your own little projects. Heaven knows there’s more than enough junk floating around for everyone to explore their hidden talents or express their individuality. Doing it on a small scale can still have quite the impact too; whether it’s in your own home or for commercial purposes. We’ve just mentioned but a few designers who’ve managed to positively embrace the trend. If you know of anyone else who’s discovered the joys and merits of upcycling, share with us in the comment section below.

Hatbox wall storage [Image: Courtesy of Recreate]

%d bloggers like this: