Living: Designs on your dustbin

Designers are transforming the idea of recycling by turning the stuff we throw away into stylish and ingeniously crafted objects. Jane Withers reports

When you hear the word "recycling", what springs to mind? Those bins, probably, that have sprouted on street corners the length and breadth of Britain into which you hurl, with a satisfying sound of breaking glass, green, brown and white bottles. There are bins now for plastic waste as well as glass and even Oxfam bins for second-hand clothes.

Over the past decade or so, recycling has become a major national activity. In theory, the idea sounds fine. That proliferation of recycling bins makes us look like an environmentally responsible bunch, every one of us an amateur waste disposal and management executive.

The big question, though, is what happens to all the materials, from glass to polypropylene, we assume we are disposing of for recycling? Some, but not all, is re-used; some is squeezed into a small chunk of polymorphous trash and junked.

Increasingly, designers and manufacturers are learning how to make inventive use of recycled materials. Already cars are being made so that, when pulped, a significant part of them will be used to produce their successors. Paper is recycled as every child practising joined-up writing in an exercise book knows.

Recycling, however, is often too worthy a subject for its own good. Birthday cards, toilet rolls and envelopes that proclaim their environmentally friendly properties can be as off-putting to some shoppers as they are an inducement to others. Can recycling ever be fun?

An exhibition currently on show at the Crafts Council - "Recycling: Forms for the Next Century" - suggests that it can be. Louise Taylor of Craftspace Touring has gathered work from 27 designers and makers who have been finding deft new uses for all manner of industrial waste and consumer packaging.

As one might suspect, the usual suspects have been rounded up under the recycling banner. Here you will stumble across folksy rag rugs, wonky toys made from old tins (this use of recycled materials is well known to those fortunate to have trawled street markets in, for example, South Africa and Vietnam, where trains and boats and planes fashioned from discarded Coke cans are a familiar sight) as well as the inevitable wibbly-wobbly jewellery, the sort Harry Pottle, the repair man from hell in Terry Gillam's film Brazil, might knock together in a decidedly odd moment.

But there is much that is witty and stylish: natty handbags made from used teabags and delicately marbled with tea stains (on sale at pounds 60 each), seats made from battered bollards culled from traffic islands, a coffee table made from a massive oil can, garish apple juice cartons turned into a laundry basket and a tiny chest of drawers fashioned from sardine tins (also on sale, at pounds 99).

The sardine chest-of-drawers is the work of Michael Marriott, who says: "As well as providing this beautifully expedient solution to waste, found [recycled] materials can introduce familiarity, warmth, colour and heartiness into everyday lives."

To an extent, people have been experimenting with found materials for centuries; driftwood washed up on Britain's coastline has long been the source of benches and tables, as well as fine art sculpture. Old boats were traditionally made into fishermen's cottages.

What is different now is that designers and makers are taking a fresh and even radical look at recycled materials. They can become what we want them to be, not what they obviously ought to be; and, now, we can transform them into sophisticated forms and sophisticated reworked materials.

In the Eighties, alternative recycled design, or what was known as "skip culture", spelt a plethora of scrap-metal furniture - scrap metal welded into sometimes amusing, but usually uncomfortable, chairs.

Today, transformations of everyday used materials can even be beautiful: Luisa Cevese, for example, bonds scraps of textile waste in plastic to make a transluscent fabric delicately patterned with swirls of thread, while Deborah Thomas turns broken glass into chandeliers that radiate icy luminosity (and sell at pounds 2,250).

In the hands of Nineties designers, recycled materials may have become beautiful, but are they doing the environment any real favours? Making striking, labour-intensive and rather expensive objects out of scavenged second-hand material is, perhaps, a bit like fiddling while the world burns. Clare Goddard, the maker of the teabag bags (no, she is not the design world's Tony Benn; she has a network of tipplers who send her dried teabags, including one lady who insists on ironing them first) argues that she is doing some good.

"It is challenging trying to break through the barriers in the minds of the general public and retail buyers," she says. "It is important that they are made aware of recycled production and start to associate these processes with high-quality products." Although one cannot quite see her tea-bag numbers selling alongside Gucci bags in Harrods.

Jane Atfield uses factory cut-offs and rejects in place of discarded materials to shape her distinctive nougat-like (Jackson Pollock if you want to be smart) furniture. Atfield began to make furniture from high- density recycled plastic board while she was at the Royal Colege of Art. Then it had to be imported from the United States; now she has persuaded a British manufacturer to produce it.

Although recycling plastic - at one time, every ill-informed conservationist's bogey - seems a sound idea, not everyone agrees. Victor Papanek, author of the influential polemic Design for the Real World and, more recently, The Green Imperative, is less sure about its long-term environmental effects. Papanek, who lives in the US where plastic now accounts for a quarter of all trash, argues that the energy used to recycle plastic is wasteful and that it would be better to use far less of the stuff in the first place. Such cautionary tales remind us of how easily the label "recycled" can lull us into a false sense of ecological security.

To be fair, most of the designers and crafts people in the show don't make grand ecological claims. As Tejo Remy, a Dutch designer who exhibits a lamp made from neat rows of suspended milk bottles, points out: "Choosing second-hand materials is not just for environmental, economic or aesthetic reasons. Re-using materials is not always cheaper, does not take less time and is not necessarily cleaner for the environment. For me it is more a mentality of working with things and creating. Everything we need to make new things is already available to us." Sure. Now, which designer is going to be the first to make something interesting, and worth buying, from recycled recycling bins?

`Recycling: Forms for the Next Century' is at the Crafts Council Gallery, 22a Pentonville Road, Islington, N1 9BY until 21 April, when it starts a nationwide tour. Telephone 0171-278 7700 for details.

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