‘I turn vermin traps into wall lights and galvanized water tanks into coffee tables,’ says Guy Trench, founder of Antiques By Design (www.antiquesbydesign.co.uk), who has just opened his second shop. Later this month, he will show at the Battersea Decorative Antiques Fair (18-23 January).
Trench has made it his business transforming useless items – salvaged from skips, auction houses or countryside walks - into objets d’art. ‘To me, the term ‘upcycling’ means taking a throwaway thing and making it into something else with a purpose,' says the designer. 'It has a wow factor, you walk into a room and see something that is completely different.’ In Trench's Essex workshop, redundant fishing rods and battered trumpets become lamps while shabby Victorian and Regency iron windows are repurposed into mirrors. Even pheasant feathers don’t escape his beady eye – they are painstakingly hand-stuck onto parchment lampshades to perch above his shotgun standard lamps.
Fixing things up is in Trench’s blood. He spent nine years as a North Sea diver setting up welding operations in the oilfields. ‘I’ve always worked with my hands and used my initiative; when something went wrong under water, you had to fix it, make it work or get by somehow.’ He later ran a water sports centre for 17 years often mending broken equipment. Retrospectively, he recognizes that those challenges of repairing broken objects, be they oil pipes or wind sails was a training (of sort) for his current job. Inspired by his antique dealer grandmother, Trench founded Antiques by Design in 2002. His first shop in The Old Cinema in Chiswick has ‘done fantastically well’ so last month, he opened a new shop in The Helmswell Centre in Lincolnshire and continues to show at many interior fairs nationwide.
‘At Decorex last year, a Portuguese interior designer bought 26 repurposed lamps, some musical, some sporting for a project,’ says Trench. Tellingly, most of Trench’s clients are interior designers or private commissions. Clients contact Trench wanting to breathe new life into redundant – but sentimental - items like Grandpa’s fishing rod, a 1930s Kodak camera, ice hockey sticks or Dad’s old rifle. People don't want to throw nostalgic things away but simultaneously, they are futile clutter until Trench works his magic. The requests can be quite extraordinary; ‘Somebody approached me with their 18th century harrow and I turned it into a 16-light chandelier. It now hangs in the stairwell of an Essex barn. It’s rather menacing with all the rusty spikes hanging down and is one of my favourite designs.‘
While the green label of sustainability helps to sell, it is not a primary motivation for Trench. ‘I love my job to death. I suppose it’s a little bit eco but I really love it because it’s being inventive. We’re not going to sell many of my First World War gas mask lamps but it shows that we’re totally different.'
Trench is not the only designer salvaging and repurposing useless items for the home. Ryan Frank uses the wood from old school desks to create funky chairs and has just launched a cork iPad case sold through the design boutique on mydeco.com. At home, his bed is made from old doors; his coffee table was two palettes and a light shade formerly a bucket. ‘I love the idea of not buying brand new stuff.’ Frank says, ‘One, because I love old stuff; two, because you don’t spend money; and three, because the style you end up with is your own. I guess it’s called ‘free style’. Textile graduate Zoe Murphy, says of her upcycled old Formica worktops and cocktail cabinets (sold in Liberty), ‘My work is all about taking something disused and unloved and making people appreciate it again.’ Over on the high street, the shop Anthropologie is a pioneer of stylish upcycled designs; President Obama bought one of its chandeliers made from recycled plastic bottles, string and wire.
The beauty of upcycling is that you too can make junk look like treasure. ‘People chuck 1920s tennis racquets out because they’re pretty useless but anybody can turn one into a mirror – which is in fact, our bestseller.' Trench explains, 'Pick one up at a car boot sale, take it to a local mirror guy, find a hook at an antiques fair… hey presto, it’s very easy to do.’
Trench thinks his is the best job in the world. After spending 'far too long' in a cramped deep compression chamber in the North Sea, he relishes his freedom and inventiveness. ' I never know till tomorrow what I'm going to find or make. I’m creating things for the future out of antiques and making objects that are worth passing down the generations. It’s keeping the past. Be it a vermin trap light or a water tank table, people will keep everything that I make.'