Over the past decade the popularization of the upcycling movement has paved the way for our ever-broadening love of DIYing, vintage chic or shaby chicc, the modern farmhouse look, and the concept of the fixer upper and fixer upper style.
Though we think of upcycling in a relatively contemporary context, the term was first coined in the early 90s and creative reuse centres (being places that collect and redistribute reusable materials) have been in place in the 1970s.
Allow me to clarify my use of the term upcycling in the context of interior design:
- Any type of décor or furniture that has been rehabilitated or been given a makeover to breathe new life into it.
- Vintage or antique pieces kept in their original state or modified and repurposed in a home’s design.
- Anything built from reclaimed materials. Reclaimed materials are any kind of material that has been used before.
- Items that aren’t vintage or antique, but that are being used in new ways in a home’s design with or without alterations.
When the upcycling movement first gained prominence in pop culture it didn’t open a door so much as a floodgate, which continues to reverberate within interior design. The styles upcycling has influenced have flourished because of the tactile intimacy of engaging and connecting with objects in a personal and authentic way that is situated within the upcycling frame of thinking. As a society we generally have a positive response to upcycling and DIYing because it strips away the negativity in which materialism is embroiled—when we craft something ourselves with our own hands, that is a very raw experience that allows us to shape a story.
We should regard the commercialization of reclaimed materials and upcycling with caution and continue striving for authentically re-purposed materials in both ecologically friendly design, and interior styles that draw on the upcycling movement for their inspirations
The term upcycling was first recorded in print in 1994, in an article written by Thornton Kay for Salvo News featuring German contractor and designer Reiner Pilz. This is a designer who was almost entirely using reclaimed timbers before the term “reclaimed” had even breached the horizon of our pop culture lexicon. No one was getting down and dirty in online crafting forums swapping ideas about how to repurpose this or that. In fact, crafting forums didn’t really exist, no one was blogging, interior design was held tightly in the grasp of magazine editors, eBay and Craigslist hadn’t yet launched, Annie Sloan was still six years away from setting up shop in Oxford and so the world hadn’t discovered the wonder of furniture makeovers with chalk paint. Despite his lacking access to the rich resources at our fingertips today, Pilz had eschewed the use of polyurethane varnishes, was mixing up his own ecologically sound natural wax top coats in his shop, and was flying to England to shop for salvaged materials he could use in his designs. He was ahead of the curve by miles.
I have paraphrased the most relevant portions of the interview:
“He uses items in much more versatile ways … he personally designs much of their [the company’s] output, sometimes using architectural antiques and sometimes rubbish scoured locally, usually by Pilz himself. He loves to build from rubbish given the opportunity. Pilz fabricates the old by reworking old items [rather than by buying reproductions]. It’s a nuance few would notice.” Then Pilz’ famous line is quoted, “Recycling, I call it down-cycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is up-cycling, where old products are given more value, not less.”
Pilz fabricates the old by reworking old items [rather than by buying repros]. It’s a nuance few would notice.
In 1994 it was a nuance few would notice, but within a number of years it would become the pillar stone of a growing community of crafter and designer upcyclers who built websites like Craftster.org, filled the virtual halls of Pinterest, formed local upcycling programs, built impressive art installations, and later spawned the first home design bloggers. Pilz couldn’t have predicted the future better if had seen it himself. We now live in a world where old products are given more value, where reclaimed materials are sought after, and millions of people strive to design their homes with a conscious deliberate effort to repurpose salvaged goods.
Upcycling jumped into the mainstream via a surging prominence in pop culture in the late 2000s, and it happened simultaneously in fashion and interior design. To some degree people like to be told what is stylish and what types of aesthetics to like because it’s easier. I don’t know if people were exposed for the first time to décor that fell under the upcycling umbrella and subsequently had a revelation about their own style identity, or if they are simply following along with the marching crowd. Like with most aspects of social life, I imagine it’s a combination of both.
The tactile intimacy of engaging and connecting with objects in a personal and authentic way stems from the upcycling frame of thinking.
Those people who are truly inspired by repurposed and reclaimed materials and who are passionate about the foundations of upcycling are going to have a more authentic encounter with design. If you are decorating your home in reproduced vintage items, or buying reproduced farmhouse sinks, or installing reclaimed-look hardwood floors because it’s “in style” that really isn’t authentic to the upcycling movement.
What started purely as a grass-roots environmental movement has morphed into something so other that it’s almost unrecognizable from its origins. When the upcycling movement first began to take off people were trying to reduce their footprint, reduce their waste, and to reconnect with objects in a tangible way. It was so undeniably attractive because people were having a measurably authentic experience through the process of upcycling objects destined for a landfill. However, the eco-friendly aspects that drove upcycling for so many years have faded a little into the background as we’ve begun to embrace the aesthetic value of reclaimed materials and goods.
It’s important to keep Pilz’s opinions about upcycling in our minds. Like Kay said, buying a brand new reproduced item is a nuance worth noticing. We should regard the commercialization of reclaimed materials and upcycling with caution and continue striving for authentically repurposed materials in ecologically friendly and sustainable design, as well as interior design styles that draw on the upcycling movement for their inspirations (i.e. farmhouse, vintage, bohemian, fixer upper, etc.).