When is a door not a door? When it is a table (or perhaps a bed headboard). And when are buckets not for putting things in? When they're lampshades. And can a falling-apart suitcase be anything but useless? Yes – when it's a shelf, a drawer, a coffee table with storage. This is not quite "upcycling", a now-familiar term where, say, an unloved old piece of furniture is given new knobs, stencilled or re-upholstered back to life. Indeed, many talented designers are building entire careers out of doing just that, brilliantly, which perhaps illustrates just how craft-friendly you'd have to be to try it at home. Or how much you should expect to pay someone else to have done the hard craft for you.
But now a trend with all of the eco feel-good factor – but without the budget (or effort) – is bubbling up into the mainstream. It is the art of hacking, or reappropriation, of giving new life to an object simply by using it for something other than what it was designed for. Even the DIY-phobic can get involved – perfect for this conflicted time of year, when skintness combines with the desire to feel inspired enough by our interiors to positively relish not going out. The catch? You will need a bit of what those upcycling designers and resourceful interiors stylists have in buckets: creativity. But the more you tune into this way of thinking, the easier it becomes.
Ferdie Ahmed runs two bars in London, Barrio North and Barrio Central, which are bursting with inspiration. The gentle, coloured light above the bar at the Islington branch comes not from expensive lampshades or even from vintage versions, but from those builders' mixing tubs you see stacked outside DIY shops for a few pounds a-piece. They'd been used in the bars to carry ice – but Ahmed spotted their alternative potential. Elsewhere, apple crates and broken chests of drawers become wall-hung shelving units; scaffold planks clad the entrance wall and the tiles opposite – a patchwork of earthy tones and interesting textures – didn't come from a designer tile shop, but from the discount bin.
Ahmed, who designed and sourced everything himself, says: "I thought they were really nice colours and textures; then I realised I was looking at the reverse side." Undeterred by convention, he bought them anyway and used them that way around. "The bonus is that I didn't have to buy matching ones; it's a cheap way to pick up a lot of tiles," he says. And the result is surprisingly good. "The whole design was partly inspired by my travels, particularly in some Latin countries and by the ingenuity people showed in reclaiming, reappropriating and reusing stuff found on the street – scrap metal or colourful old food cans to build shelters or beach carts – and how they made them look cool without a big budget."
But if even that is too much DIY action, the approach can be pared down further still. It can be as simple as peeling the label off an empty can of beans and turning it into a planter or a utilitarian utensil holder. The beauty is about the twist of the unexpected.
Using objects in unusual or new ways gives a home-interiors magazine individuality. It is a playful way to decorate, prompting satisfying comments from friends – like, "oh what a clever idea" – but all without the upscale interiors price-tag.
"For the average person it's a lot about finances," says Jasmine Orchard, an interior stylist who works with recycled, upcycled and found objects. She acknowledges the trend is starting to infiltrate the mainstream. "People want something individual and cheap: you can get cheap at Ikea, but not individual, and you can get individual, but expensive, in designer shops."
Orchard's own reuse projects are brilliantly simple: glass jelly moulds-turned-soap dishes; nice teapots (lids removed) to display earrings, hung around the rims; a bent cymbal used as a magazine rack; a colourful old plastic milk crate to stash washing up paraphernalia; and paper cups as lampshades for fairy lights.
Sally Bailey, co-author of Handmade Home, has been doing this for over 25 years, since she and her husband, Mark, opened their shop, Baileyshome.com, with the philosophy "repair, reuse, rethink". She can see a trend: "In the beginning no one got what we were doing," she says.
"But now it's become very fashionable. Which is brilliant. The trick is to keep an open mind."
She cites a house she knows that uses a wall-mounted pallet to display books, and another that positioned an old door behind a bed for an instant headboard. Currently the Baileys are enjoying their ex-RAF chocks from Brize Norton (door stops); the old washing "dolly" that has become a kitchen-roll holder (it looks like a wooden-handled sink plunger, which you could also use); an unusual wall cabinet made from seven mis-matched floor cupboards fixed to a wall together; and the cluster of anglepoise lamps attached upside down to the ceiling, instead of – traditionally - to walls. They look "a bit War of the Worlds," Bailey says. "I think it's about a whole mood with the economic crises we're going through.
"People have become really anti-disposable culture and landfill and want to personalise their homes."
To get started, William Morris's mantra about having nothing that isn't useful or beautiful in your home is a good one – but focus on what you already have and make it one or the other. Whether it's a stray drawer that finds a new life as a portable storage caddy with the addition of castors, a nice bit of plastic from a broken toy that, upside down, is suddenly a striking desk tidy, or just a beautiful-but-useless object that would look better on the mantelpiece than languishing in the attic – the main thing is to have a go. And to persevere. As Bailey says: "You can find a use for most things. But it can take a while – sometimes you have to look at something for a long time."
Reappropriation: Get the look
Stylist Jasmine Orchard's top tip on getting the reappropriation habit:
"This is a really good way to start if it doesn't come naturally: pick something you want or need – a new vase, a thing to put the recycling in – then go to a car boot sale and look at anything that could physically do the job. Upside down, it could hold water? If you attached to the wall, would it fit in your kitchen? See it as an exercise: set yourself the task of looking at any object and seeing it in different ways – and forgetting about its original function."
Jasmine Orchard offers a budget-friendly home styling service (jasmineorchardstyling.com).