Saturday, 15 February 2014 02:00

Upcycling - Ugly Word With a Great (Re)purpose

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

The antiques hobby is full of cycles; trends that come and go and come back again. The current big buzzword is “repurposing” – altering an object to use it for something else. So an old suitcase becomes a medicine cabinet, a steamer trunk becomes a coffee table. Along with lamps, coffee tables are probably the most popular final products for repurposing; all you need is some tempered glass, or a drill and a light socket, and away you go. Many antique dealers are getting into this in a big way; some stores even have open workshop areas dedicated to repurposing. It’s a great concept; finally you can find a use for those boxes of vintage Mason jars or typewriters that don’t work and, yes, steamer trunks which until recently had been considered nice to look at but often not worth the space they take up.

113 upcycling drawersIt’s so big we even have a new name for it – upcycling. Instead of breaking something down so the material can be reused, we alter it, keep its original look but give it a new, presumably better, functionality.

Repurposing is a decorating fad popular with young urbanites so TV talk show hosts gush on about it but of course it’s not new, people have been repurposing almost as long as they’ve been making things.

Wartime brought its own special kind of repurposing; trench art. During World War One many bored soldiers made all kinds of things out of spent shells and whatever else was lying around. The term is still applied to later war-related examples though, thankfully, the trenches are no longer. The last major repurposing craze took place just after World War Two when it was more of a necessity than a fashion statement. People needed to make do so the “cash from trash” craze was born. Unfortunately it resulted in a lot of treasures being made into trash. There plenty of stories of holes being drilled in priceless vases to make lamps, or beautiful pieces of furniture being cut up to make workbenches.

When prosperity returned in the 1950s, antiques became desirable again. Collectors prized the worn look and patina so, unless the object had a hideous coat of paint applied years after it was made, it was better not to touch it at all.

The current repurposing fad is much like the cash from trash days but it fits in to an even bigger cycle. Our society’s fascination with antiques began around 1830 when the Industrial Revolution really took hold in Britain and Europe. As more and more of our household objects were being made in factories with the aid of machines there grew a desire to collect and preserve the best examples of anything that was 113 upcycling industrial lightinghand-made, especially furniture.  Now, as our factories are slowly disappearing we are collecting and preserving things related to industry. The industrial look is a big part of the repurposing trend; old gears, steel office furniture, massive lighting fixtures, anything relating to factories is being made into funky household art. Even the factories themselves are part of it. Many are being converted into living spaces, upscale condos and apartments, but the developers take great pains to preserve the old factory look and feel. The space at our own former Tudhope factory with its exposed brick and plumbing is a perfect example.

It’s not just our industrial heritage we see slipping away, the family farm is also becoming, well, more like a factory. The old barns are gradually falling down. There’s not much we can do with them but we can repurpose the boards, hardware and especially the huge beams. Grain scale coffee tables have been popular for a long time, horse collars get fitted with mirrors, horseshoes can be made into almost anything and old barn lights are ultra cool.

Repurposing is a handicraft so it is also part of the artisan trend. Ideally each repurposed object is unique and artistically inspired, even if it’s designed to look industrial. That is what many young collectors are looking for these days; something that expresses their individuality, not their grandmother’s dinnerware.

There are a lot of imaginative examples of repurposing, an old parabolic electric space heater can be easily turned into a neat desk lamp, and we’ve had customers buy old hand barbering clippers to use as coat hooks. The web site Pinterest ( has thousands of ideas to share, just search “upcycling” on their site.

At its best, repurposing allows us to make something that was about to be thrown away into something useful. The aforementioned Mason jars are an interesting example.

A hundred years ago every homemaker used them to preserve fruit in the fall because you couldn’t get it in the winter. Today some hard to find colours and brands can sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors but there’s a lot of ordinary ones around. They were built to last, everybody kept them for years and years to reuse but few people preserve anymore so you can pick them up at yard sales for almost nothing. They have no purpose anymore but they are old and attractive; we just can’t bring ourselves to throw them away.

113 upcycling bathtub loveseatSome people make lamp bases out of them, or use them in the kitchen to hold stuff but lately they are being used to make funky, hanging light fixtures. All you have to do is dip the top half of the jar in some paint to give it colour and shield the bulb, then get a modern metal canning jar top, drill some holes in it, attach a socket and some wire and you’ve got yourself a conversation piece. Make several in different colours and hang them at different heights and you’ve got a work of art unlike anything you can buy at IKEA.

Not all repurposed objects are that useful or inspired. Like any trend, the very popularity of repurposing has given us a lot of over-the-top junk. Do you really want a chair made of old wooden water skis? How many different kinds of table lamps do you actually need? But in a world where we have too much useless stuff and not enough landfill, upcycling may be an ugly word but it is a good idea.