Everything you throw away has value, however small. Whether it’s a garment that has outlived its stitching, a broken chair, a bicycle wheel or a lowly plastic bag, it is still something that’s made from a refined material and designed for a purpose.
Upcycling interrupts the cycle of consumption and the habit of buying things and throwing them away. Upcyclers give still-useful things another life in an effort to keep those things out of the landfill for a little while longer. At its best, upcycling takes something that appears to be worthless and transforms it so completely that it will always be valuable and valued.
The problem with upcycling is how do you turn junk back into something useful? What does it take to rework something broken into something beautiful? And how do you elevate cast-off bits of cultural detritus into valuable things that will never be thrown away again?
Step One: Obtainium
When I was a young artist toiling in the warehouse workshops of West Oakland, we used to go on missions for a magical substance we called “obtainium.” Obtainium was whatever you could get that would work. At one point, we had a great lust for car wheels and sheet metal; at other times, we scoured the alleys for shipping pallets or old windows. We gathered our obtainium on street corners, in junkyards and recycling centers, at yard sales and thrift shops. You never knew what you would find, but you could always find something amazing.
We would haul our amazing obtainium back to the shop, and then look at it: Yep, still garbage. Dirty, dangerous, heavy garbage. The difficulty wasn’t in finding and collecting it; it was in looking at those raw materials and understanding what could be made from them. With the same tools and materials, two artists could produce entirely different works. The true magic of the obtainium was in our own hands.
Step Two: Discovery
To effectively upcycle something, you usually need to reduce it. To do that, you remove the assumption of its previous use, strip away layers of grease, paint, and dirt, and reveal the underlying potential. If it’s plastic, you might melt it down. Metal usually gets the grinder. Wood is sanded and shaped.
Technically, this is a step backward. To re-create something in a new form, you have to go back to what it was before it became useless. That doesn’t mean erasing all traces of a past life: Some of the best upcycled works constantly remind us of their most recent reincarnations. But in order to give a new life to an old thing, you have to go back to the last fork in the road. Maybe you can’t un-bend that old bike wheel—but before it was a wheel, it was a strip of steel or aluminum. What can you do with that?
During discovery, you begin to understand and appreciate what you really have in front of you. The past life of an object falls away, and so too does its stigma as “trash.”
Step Three: Magic
Once you know what you’re working with, you brainstorm. What can you realistically make out of the oddly shaped things you have collected? What strange beauties have you unearthed, and how can you repurpose them into something that is more than the sum of its parts?
This is the crucial part of the story. We have all seen our share of mediocre upcycled arts and crafts. I have even produced quite a few sub-par items while a few of my cohorts created masterpiece after masterpiece.
Working with the same tools and materials, one person creates a piece of junk, while another makes something sublime. Why do some “repurposed” projects still look like trash, while others are transformed into treasure?
It isn’t really magic: It’s skill, instinct, experience, and artistry. It is the ability to use the tools, a knowledge of the materials, and the power to predict every step of the process, including the result.
Step Four: Craft
Ask yourself: How do bicycles, clothes, furniture, appliances and automobiles—the things we use every single day of our lives—wind up on the garbage heap in the first place? Overwhelmingly, we throw things away because they weren’t well made. We bought them at a bargain because they were right in front of us and had an appealing price tag; the hidden cost was that, sooner or later, they would break and not be “worth” fixing, or would be completely unfixable.
Most of what we buy was made in a factory somewhere; it has thousands of identical copies. In a mass-produced world, almost none of our possessions are truly unique. We might treasure them for a time, but in the end, if something can be replaced by a reasonably similar item, why hang onto it?
It’s ironic that quality and craftsmanship are often sacrificed in the name of convenience and cost. The cheaper things we buy tend to become “worthless” over time, and need to be replaced, while something well-made and unique can be a treasured possession for a lifetime or longer. Buy one gorgeous, handmade coffee table in your life, or buy five mediocre ones at half the price: In the end, what costs you more? What costs the planet more?
Meanwhile, quality craftsmanship can resurrect a “worthless” thing from ruin, and in the process restore and even increase its value.
A skilled craftsperson ultimately sees little difference between working with repurposed and new materials. The work required is comparable, the skill and experience needed are the same, the artistry is similar. In the end, the product is equal: a high-quality, unique, interesting, useful work. What does it matter if it started as junk? It isn’t junk any more.
Part of what makes craftspeople and upcyclers tick is the challenge of making things better. It’s the knowledge that, by remaking something into a useful, pleasing object, you don’t just remove it from the waste stream; you attempt to interrupt the cycle of buying and throwing. In the process, you gain the deep fulfillment that comes from making something right, from refusing to sacrifice quality and artistry, from developing and applying your skills.
Upcyclers start with trash, and seek to create treasure. They inject skill, love, and hard work into discarded materials. It may seem counterintuitive to pay a craftsman’s price to a person who repurposes found materials. The reality is that you aren’t buying the materials; you’re investing in the craft.
Next time you look at an upcycled or repurposed item, take the time to really think about its past. How was it made? Where did it come from? How many days of labor, how many months of planning, how many years of experience did it take to create that work? Each upcycled creation comes with a unique history.
Howard Pincus of Iron Lumber & Light – “Inspired by the industrial age, my designs try to capture the look and feel of vintage Americana while maintaining function for today’s modern world. Utilizing the same materials as our industrial pioneers; Iron, Lumber & Light, and a few modern things too, we create functional art for the modern world.” See more work by Iron Lumber and Light.
Jeremy Medow of Tungsten Customs designs and builds both vintage and modern inspired lamps, furniture and clocks. Many projects start with antique pieces, and end with something more contemporary. See more work by Tungsten Customs.
If you’re interested in upcycling after reading this article, take a look at this vintage industrial floor lamp. — http://www.custommade.com/vintage-industrial-floor-lamp/by/antonmakadesigns/