Seat of power: How troubled kids are turning old furniture - and their lives - around
A Buckinghamshire couple have done the seemingly impossible – get unmotivated kids out of trouble and into… bespoke furniture-making. Kate Burt pays the workshop a visit.
Fans of mid-century furniture might find it hard to hold on to their purses in Jay and Jade Blades' showroom. The whitewashed space above the couple's furniture restoration and upcycling workshop, in High Wycombe – once the epicentre of British furniture manufacturing, with great homegrown firms including Ercol, G-Plan and Parker Knoll based in the town – is like a sweetie shop for modernist-interiors addicts.
Pristine pieces include glass-smooth, rosewood Mackintosh chairs, a lovingly polished Ercol dining set and a 1950s Avalon oak and beech chest of drawers with a duck-egg blue makeover. If you worked here, you'd want to buy it all.
Except that, of those restorers who are old enough to have a bank account, most would struggle to squeeze too much vintage furniture into their teenage bedrooms. The average age of the restorers here – buffing battered sideboards and chairs to a soundtrack of gangster rap and R&B – is around 15.
Eighteen-year-old Yassir Sohail is working on a 1930s steamed-wood rocking chair for a client. "Sometimes the stain comes through the paint," he explains, rubbing one of the arms gently, "so I make sure it has three to four coats. Next I'll need to clean off any excess paintf and polish the unpainted wood. They usually give me this sort of job," he says, "because I'm really good at painting."
Sohail isn't a precocious vintage-furniture nerd, he's part of Out of the Dark, the name of the Blades' social enterprise, which trains vulnerable young people to restore and sell old furniture. Prices range from around £40 for a coffee table to £900 for an Ercol dining set, but the profits go back into Out of the Dark in order to help more young people.
Twelve students at Sohail's school were singled out as not doing well – and referred to the organisation. "I was off-track. Not badly behaved, just not putting in much effort," concedes Sohail, who has since graduated to running the warehouse when the bosses are away, and whom Jay calls his "right-hand man". Although young people (the age range is 12 to 21) are also often referred by the authorities, including the police, the courses are highly competitive. "Hell yeah," says Jay. "We've got a waiting list of 30 at the moment. Stay busy or go home and play on the internet."
But how to get a bunch of unmotivated kids, hardwired by a consumerist society, to lavish hard labour on reviving bits of old furniture – often in their spare time, and for free? The answer, partly, is Jay, who has something of the Pied Piper charisma of Jamie Oliver – if you can picture a gold-toothed version of the chef from a single-parent family in Hackney, who got kicked out of school at 15.
"Jay and I met at university here in High Wycombe," explains Jade. "I was studying textiles, Jay was doing criminology." He was 30, and had been out of education for 15 years, "doing a bit of this, a bit of that, a few naughty things. He really turned his life around.
"Jay was volunteering for some youth organisations but would always come home complaining that they could be doing things better – and it got us thinking." Because of Jay's course, he got to spend time with Oxford police and the Area Commander asked him to help on a local project: "They were having problems with young people in some estates," continues Jade. "While the youth service were barring young people from youth clubs, we'd get to know them. The minute they saw Jay – big gold bracelet, gold teeth, cool clothes – they were thinking: is he going to rob us? Sell us drugs? Then he'd start talking positive stuff and they'd be intrigued." The umbrella charity for Out of the Dark, called Street Dreams, emerged.
The furniture idea came by chance in 2010, when one of the kids on a project got given a desk by his uncle and asked Jay to help him fix it up. Jade recalls watching the process unfold out of the kitchen window: "Suddenly it was obvious what we should do. I'd briefly been in design in my twenties, and had my textiles degree. And we were both really into vintage furniture." That they happened to be living in the heart of the country's one-time furniture-making HQ sealed the deal. "We'd found something that also tapped into the history of the town – and where there was a wealth of experience." They now have a 91-year-old local teaching classes on chair caning and an 80-year-old who does the French polishing workshop.
Travis Henry, aged 18, is learning how to cane a chair seat, but using recycled electronic wire. "At school, woodwork was not great – and there were so many pupils. But here I have learnt lots of skills. It's a lot of work, but it has really improved my confidence and shown me if I put the work in it pays off. As a young person you don't get much respect, so when someone likes what you've done – enough to buy it – you feel good. I also know now that I can always make money and survive, too – we find stuff that's been dumped as rubbish and we can turn it into something good and sell it."
A group of boys at the other end of the room are a little unfocused: "I can still see two chairs that need moving, gentlemen!" bellows Jay across the room. The trio immediately scuttle into action. "We work with a lot of young people who have been signposted to us by the police," says Jay, "and I turn the heat up on those types of guys. They need it. They have more hoops to jump through. We've got some in soon who are in a supposed gang," he says. "One was caught with a samurai sword, another stabbed someone. And they love robbing. I'm a lot tougher on them because they have more to prove."
"He's a good motivator," confirms one of the boys moving the chairs, 15-year-old Tyler Davis. "He gives us freedom, but he's strict. He won't hold back if he doesn't like what you're doing. You don't get many chances." Davis's friend, Luke, also 15, agrees. "I'm more disciplined now, and it makes me more want to get odd-jobs."
Emily Page, a softly-spoken, articulate 14-year-old, is putting the finishing touches to a pretty 1950s kitchen dresser. "When I got it, it was plain wood. Boring looking. I sanded it down, primed it and painted it." Page had been excluded from school "for being rude". "My self-esteem was so low, I didn't even see the point in being alive." But since being here she's gone back to school, turned away from destructive influences and become a peer mentor. "My teachers say they've seen a big change," she says smiling, "now I'm one of the top 30 pupils." And things at home have taken an unexpected turn, too. "Before this, I used to ask my dad to put up shelves, but now I don't need him. When he asked if I wanted him to put up a shelf in my room, I told him: 'I've already done it myself. Don't underestimate me!'"
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