The scrap of luxury: The craftspeople who combine high design with street-level scavenging

Some of the most fashionable new furniture isn't actually new at all – it's salvaged from tips and skips
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The Independent Online

At any given time, Rupert Blanchard, a furniture designer, can be spotted sifting through a skip somewhere in his native east London, asking a stall holder at a car-boot sale to sell that single drawer they're using as a container for actual stock, or having a good rifle around one of his favourite scrap yards.

"I'm a glorified rag-and-bone-man," he says. "When I'm looking for materials I often feel like I'm Steptoe and Son." Not that you'd ever judge him this way when checking out his unique – and much admired – furniture designs, including cabinets which sell for £1,400 each.

Blanchard is not alone in his pursuit of junk and reclaimed materials to use for high-end domestic pieces.

South of the river in London, the design duo Hendzel and Hunt, relative newcomers to the salvage scene, are constantly adding to their range of furniture, Made In Peckham, which is built entirely out of materials found in their SE15 postcode – discarded pallets from the streets and reclaimed materials from their local timber-recycling centre in the main.

While in Glasgow, Al Blair, a seasoned designer-maker, works 16-hour days on striking industrial-style lighting and furniture, from a creative studio that's jammed with metal, bolts, gauges, prisms, car headlights and dental-hospital trolley wheels he's gathered for the last 20 years.

All three design outfits could be put in the salvagers and upcyclers niche. Yet each of them has their own design ethic that transcends the tag. Blair for one, is "distraught about the amount of stuff that gets thrown away, but I'm embracing these found pieces because it gets my work up to a level I'm happy with".

His passion for sourcing has seen him en route to a wedding in a full suit jumping into a skip. He's "got the whole of the west of Scotland nailed for salvage yards, bric-à-brac yards, antique fairs and scrap yards".

But he thinks his designs are more rooted in engineering, a profession he started in straight from school, "where I got my training of putting things together". Looking at one of his beautifully constructed lamps with integrated antique typewriter keys, or one of the gauges he's reworked into a £600 clock, it's easy to see this learned craftsmanship – and that his so-called "junk" is of a certain standard.

At the tender age of 21 he'd had enough of engineering and because he'd always made things – fishing tackle and "every model in the Airfix catalogue" when he was young, belt buckles and alloy sun-glasses later – the leap to self-employed designer felt natural.

Commissions built up, but he took a job at Glasgow Art School (running the metal facility and bronze casting programme for the Fine Art course) when his partner became pregnant. He continued to "make big light pendants and furniture", on the side. After being made redundant in 2008, he focused on his own business again, starting by renovating the studio he'd bought 16 years earlier, "which hadn't been touched since the 1940s".

Today it's a showcase space to which he can bring clients (including a member of Franz Ferdinand and the artist Jim Lambie) to view his work, dotted as it is between reworked trolleys and industrial cabinets full of salvaged objects – Blair can often be found just staring into a drawer in pursuit of the perfect part.

Jan Hendzel (formerly of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) and Oscar Hunt (formerly of Brighton College) admit, "it's impossible to be fully sustainable", Hendzel says. "People say furniture is sustainable when it's made out of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood brought from America. What you can do is highlight that you can use what's in your area."

Their Made In Peckham collection does exactly that. It includes 20 chairs, handcrafted using reclaimed mahogany (from a bank) and Victorian floorboards discovered outside a house in Camberwell. No two chairs are the same, though each one is crafted using traditional cabinetmakers' jointing techniques with no metal fixings and costs £640. The price doesn't begin to reflect the time taken to source materials, much less the intrinsic construction process – "there are so many different stages, it's labour intensive", Hunt says.

Stools from the same collection are built entirely from discarded wooden pallets which are everywhere. "We borrow the van from the guys [in the workspace] upstairs and it can be full of them within an hour," Hendzel says. Just as often, Hendzel will be compelled to lug some discarded materials back to the workshop on his bike. Each body of work is then named in honour of where its materials were found.

Pallets might come free, but "the wood is not good quality, it's brittle and it splinters so we have to quality control everything", Hunt says. "But it's got so much character because they've been left outside the whole time." This sense of history coupled with the quality of craftsmanship behind each piece has earned the designers clients such as the illustrious Shop at Bluebird.

The duo lately attempted to spread the gospel by talking 18 fellow south London designers into creating a piece of work in 24 hours after a briefing from Hendzel and Hunt and using only locally sourced materials – the results were subsequently shown at Clerkenwell Design Week last month. Next up is kitting out an ice cream parlour in Covent Garden and "trying to come up with a cheaper range", Hunt says. "But we don't want to go down the manufacturer's line as they want us to use FSC-certified materials from wherever they're from and we want to keep it honest," Hendzel says.

Blanchard understands this sentiment. At the moment, the 31-year-old designer is working on a private house project (using only reclaimed materials), a new collection for an ethical concept store in Paris, the interiors of Ally Capellino's west London and Shoreditch showrooms, and his new, affordable Barbican collection. "Spinning a lot of plates," doesn't quite cover it.

His body of work includes off-beat cabinets constructed out of mis-matched found drawers – he determinedly avoids breaking up existing furniture, even if it is ugly, "I don't ever use something that's usable in its present state" – furniture made from scrapped sections of London buses and sideboards created using retro advertising signs, including Hellmann's Mayonnaise, Lyons and Capstan Cigarettes. The latter harks back to his graphic design degree at Central Saint Martins and his ongoing love of typography.

Blanchard's most popular pieces are "drawer units, which are quite contrasting in colour", and, from his experience as a set-builder at the beginning of his career he knows that he could enhance his pieces to make them "more colourful and poppy, but that's not what I'm about. I stay true to what I find", he says.

He puts his salvaging gene down to his upbringing by parents "who were more thrifty, more 'if it isn't broken it doesn't need to be wasted'" rather than his need to save the world. But "the amount of waste in the UK every day is criminal", he says.

Sourcing daily, Blanchard has filled his east-London warehouse with hundreds of drawers, doors, stair spindles, handles, cardboard boxes with logos, door plates and hinges and screws. "I try to keep on top of my hoarding, I don't want to be found with a stack of drawers on top of me one day," he says.

It will be interesting to see how our consumer tastes for upcycled furniture will evolve and whether we'll ever view these pieces – effectively made out of antique parts – as antiques in their own right.

Blanchard, who has been making furniture for 10 years, noticed lately that two of his pieces purchased in the past three or four years, were resold, "for a lot more". While Blair is convinced his work is "going to be worth a fortune in future" and Hunt thinks their pieces "will gain value – a chair is an heirloom, you'll keep it and pass it on".

Lucy Ryder Richardson, who runs the popular Midcentury Modern furniture shows in London, endorses this thinking. "This kind of work is collectable as you can tell who the designer is for each of the pieces, there's a creative stamp on them," she says.

"An upcycled piece is a stand-out piece of art. I'm now saying to Midcentury dealers that it's worth upcycling their older pieces – ideally by linking up with new designers like Rupert Blanchard. We need these people to bring us forward."