Reclaim the seats: A new breed of designers is transforming scrap into desirable home furnishings
Thursday 15 May 2008
Anyone who has seen one of Lisa Whatmough's striking creations will not be surprised that she has a fine-arts background and trained as a sculptor. But the grittiness of contemporary art didn't fit with her desire to create beautiful, desirable objects for people to live with. "Creative design is hard in the art world, because it's not seen as particularly worthy," she explains.
After working for an antique-furniture company, and discovering the history behind, and love that went into, each piece, Whatmough set up Squint three years ago to make bespoke armchairs and sofas, upholstered in vivid collages of antique silks sourced from all over the world. The genesis of Squint, which had the photographer Mario Testino poking around at its opening party, and is currently moving to bigger premises in London's hip Shoreditch, came from a chance encounter with some exquisite 19th-century silk at a fabric fair.
"It really fired me up," she says. "You have to start with patchwork as there's never enough of what you find."
Whatmough believes that British design is experiencing a renaissance because there is a backlash against the homogenised European design that flooded the high street in recent years. She designs each piece individually, in consultation with the customer, and they are made by traditional craftsmen in Nottingham. "It's important to have things made in Britain," she says, "and to support our crafts. We're seeing the effects of global warming and need to think about living differently, which doesn't mean buying expensively, just not expecting to buy everything from one shop."
With chairs starting at £2,600 and sofas up to £10,000, Whatmough says even she has to save up to buy her pieces. But she also designs covetable lampshades, each one unique, from £100, and other accessories that she hopes communicate the beauty of the fabric and the love that goes into each design.
Gareth Devonald Smith
It comes as something of a surprise to learn that Gareth Devonald Smith's elaborate chandeliers, which wouldn't look out of place at the court of Louis XIV, are fashioned from reclaimed copper. His shimmering Sun Moon creation, a fantastical construction studded with gems, takes two or three months to make, and is part of a collection of chandeliers and sconces, alongside lamp bases with a more modern, sculptural feel to them, that Smith is making out of recycled copper for Eco, a green interiors store owned by Colin Firth and his wife Livia Giuggioli.
"I've always had a copper scraps box," says Smith, "and when I moved to my current workshop, a neighbour had a lot of copper tubing left over from a plumbing system, which he gave to me."
The Eco team spotted Smith's work in House & Garden last year. "It's a brilliant idea," says Smith of the store. "Because of their sustainability ethics, you know everything in it has come from reclamation and has been thought about."
After training as a textile designer, Smith learnt silver soldering while sharing a workshop with jewellery designers, and started working with copper three years ago. Each piece is distinct and Smith does intricate floral designs as well as more architectural, geometric shapes. He sees his light fittings as sculptures rather than just household objects. If his work seems unusual, it's because he tries not to be influenced by other designers' work. "I work in a bit of a vacuum. People say my work has an odd quality to it, and I think it's because I work from inside myself, rather than looking outside," he explains.
Smith makes each piece to order, and is currently designing some for a new Gordon Ramsay restaurant opening in Mayfair this year. Reclaimed copper is getting harder to find, though, as escalating prices mean that more people are removing the copper from their waste before throwing it out. It seems credit-crunch thrift is boosting the popularity of recycling, which can only be a good thing.
Eco, 213 Chiswick High Road, London W4; www.eco-age.com
This South African designer's commitment to reducing Britain's mountain of plastic-bag waste is rather more evolved than your average ecobag-toting shopper. Ryan Frank has designed a chair made entirely out of plastic bags, with a recycled aluminium frame. The chair is called Inkuku, Zulu for "chicken", after the ornaments and trinkets made out of plastic bags and other waste materials that inspired him in Cape Town.
Other products from Frank's collection include lighting made from corrugated-iron sheets, and wooden chairs and tables fashioned from unwanted office furniture. He says that the move towards using reclaimed materials developed naturally when he moved to the UK, because there is so much waste here.
He creates the wooden pieces with a company called Green Works, which has saved more than 60,000 tonnes of redundant office furniture from landfill since 2000. When Frank heard about Green Works, he proposed that they making some "sexy furniture" together, and the end results are certainly covetable: the chair, stool, coffee and dining table are beautiful curved structures, and the grain of the wood is brought out to produce a striped appearance.
"At least 70 per cent of the chairs and tables come from nasty old office furniture with laminates on, which would just have been landfill," says Frank. "For the rest, I use a certified birch ply for structural strength, sourced from sustainable, managed forests. It's all assembled under one roof, and we use a water-based spray varnish to seal it in."
It was long before "eco" became a buzzword, back in the Seventies, that David Meddings had his green epiphany. Travelling across the Sahara, he spotted a shack, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a shop, crudely constructed from driftwood and Coke cans. Inspired by this clever use of waste, Meddings started selling carpetbags to designers back in London, before decamping to Ireland, where he observed more examples of thrifty recycling.
In the UK, however, it's a different story. Meddings is now based in Suffolk, where he makes furniture and other household objects out of timber reclaimed from old cable reels. He made his first rocking chair, one of his most popular products, in 2002, and when he showed it at a fair, it was snapped up. Meddings takes his design lead from the reels – the rocking chair retains the three bolts that held the reel together.
His next design was a three-legged table, a sturdy, rustic piece that can be used indoors or out, held together by a thick bolt through the centre. This means it can be transported and assembled at home with ease. Much of the wood Meddings uses is mature and of high quality, and he brings out the character of each piece by making features of the gnarls and knots. Each product is finished with environmentally friendly lacquer.
Meddings is currently doing garden-furniture workshops at the Spring Renaissance show in London's Covent Garden, and his work is on sale there until Sunday.
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