The concepts of building something out of nothing and finding gold in somebody else's garbage are very much at the heart of a trend that could very well be seen as a euphemism for 2017 as a whole, given the widespread disappointment with the political and cultural landscape of 2016. Whether or not 2017 will rise like a phoenix from the ashes remains to be seen (given the opening fortnight, probably not), but whatever happens upcycling is definitely a trend I think we'll be seeing more of as the year progresses. Upcycling is a trend that has been around for years now, of course, but as a society that tends to throw things away without a second thought (have you been to your local 'tip' lately?) it's something that was bound to happen eventually before the landfills start overflowing. There's also a certain element of nostalgia to the concept, which chimes neatly with the current trend for looking back instead of forward, which has happened throughout history in times of great political unrest.
What is Upcycling?
It's effectively a cheeky reimagining of the phrase “recycling,” and is, in essence, pretty much the same thing, only a little bit more romanticised. Otherwise known as “Creative Reuse,” the idea is to take something old, worn and broken, and rebuild it into something new that maintains the charm of the original physical object. I would describe it as fixing something up, but keeping the scars intact, because the real character is in the scarring. By design, the term is the opposite of “downcycling,” which means taking the raw materials of something unused, and breaking it down into something of lesser quality and worth. The opposite is true here, as most upcycled products will fetch a pretty penny, as long as the quality of the transformation is up to scratch of course.
Upcycling in 2017
2017 has been stated by many in the design community (and beyond) as the year we will return to organic roots. Upcycling, alternative farming and engineering nature are trends dominating design disciplines such as fashion, homeware and colours, and will influence compositions and visual trends within graphic design, illustration and photography. Upcycled resources such as wood, rock and metal will also be dominant, whilst upcycled design will introduce bright accented colours from the synthetic nature of plastics, creating a layered, textured and collaged aesthetic that brings personalisation. Taking this a step further is alternative farming; a practice involving innovating ways to harvest unlikely resources such as hair and seaweed and using them for homeware products and more.
Meeting the Upcyclers
Lost & Found Upcycling
Designers and creative sorts from all corners of the community have embraced the ideals of upcycling in recent years. Robin Yardley from the quaint village of Chaddesley Corbett in the West Midlands, for example, is a carpenter who saw the way the tide was turning and decided to setup his own business, “Lost & Found Upcycling,” last year from his family farm. Primarily using pallet wood that would otherwise be thrown on the scrap heap, he works by hand on each piece to transform it into something you'd be proud to arrange your living room around. Po-Zu, meanwhile, is a company that specialises in creating footwear from sustainable materials, and recently unveiled a 'vegan shoe' collection created from pineapple leaves and coconut husks! M-24 is another company based around the concept, with every product they make (they specialise in bags) being constructed from truck tarpaulins and car seat belts. This is a remarkable idea, as the material itself is incredibly strong (it has to be really), but often gets binned. The company, based in Brighton, washes and cuts all of the tarps themselves, before stitching the bags and selling them at their flagship store or at various pop-up stores throughout the country.
Another example of upcycling, this time relating to interior design, can be found at the Rosebery Hotel in Jesmond just outside of Newcastle upon Tyne, which has used extensive upcycling throughout the interior design of the properties 12 bedrooms. They have old telephones transformed into wall lights, pianos gutted and turned into desks and bars and cinema seats used for traditional seating. All of the beds in the hotel are also upcycled French vintage beds, which have been reupholstered and brought back to life. Janet Stansfield, the proprietor of the establishment, explains: “Upcycling allows you to get exactly what you want, rather than buying homogenous items from a large store, you can delve into the world of junk shops, charity shops and vintage fairs! There are projects to suit all abilities also, so you don't have to be a whizz at art or textiles to produce some great results from upcycling. With a bit of imagination, a couple of tools and a lick of paint; the world is your oyster!”
The Rosebery Hotel
Interior designers are looking to upcycling as a niche that is constantly evolving and will hopefully find its perfect resting point in 2017. Professional upcycler and interior designer, Lynne Lambourne of Love Nellie, shared her thoughts on how she thinks the world of upcycling will continue to evolve this year. She said: “In 2017 I think we are going to see a continuation away from the 'shabby chic' craze to a more adventurous and creative use of colour and styles. More and more often I have been asked by clients to paint tired of pieces of furniture in dark grey, blacks and dark blues creating bold statement pieces for their homes. People generally are wanting something unique that their neighbours won't have. There is a real buzz of creativity as TV shows and blogs give us all more and more ideas which are easily achievable. The #upcyclerevolution is here to stay and will only gather momentum during 2017.”
Lynne Lambourne of Love Nellie
I've only just scratched the surface here, of course, as there are undoubtedly hundreds of designers discovering the joys and merits of upcycling every day. As an inherently wasteful society, this can only be a good thing, and if any of the examples above have piqued your interest in the practice, I'd urge you to explore further. After all. There's an awful lot of unloved crap out there just waiting to be reborn!
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK.