One of the hottest trends in home décor these days is upcycling – repurposing mundane objects into newly functional things of beauty (including lighting).
|Belalia’s workshop and some of the wire she uses to bind metal scrubbing sponges together into ethereal illuminated objects.||Orange enamel enlivens elements from a kitchen steamer that have been riveted into a sphere of escaping illumination.|
The fascination with familiar objects that have been reinterpreted in new ways is multi-fold. Some people are charmed by the creativity involved in transforming a discarded item; others are captivated by the newfound beauty of an everyday object; and still others are happy to see a man-made item continue its journey of pleasing a new audience of consumers. Whatever the reason, retailers are discovering that this movement keeps growing.
Nadia Belalia, a French-born metal artist living in Brooklyn, views such upcycling methods as a means to erase the boundaries between man-made items and the natural world. She has repurposed ordinary objects into cocoons, nests, and chrysalises that are enhanced by illumination.
“The handcrafted industrial materials become light, shadow, pattern, surface, texture, and atmosphere,” she explains. “It seems that people are more conscious and aware of environmental issues; they want to support more eco-friendly design as well as look at an object with different eyes.”
Belalia’s favorite items to repurpose are metal scrub pads. “They offer potential and are very versatile. They create a myriad of shadows and are almost unrecognizable once I transform them,” she comments. While upcycling has become popular lately, Belalia has been expressing it through her art for a long time. “My most interesting project is creating lighting for the private residence of a circus director in Montreal. It has been an ongoing project for several years now, and I have created 32 works – from ceiling fixtures and sconces to desk and floor lamps. As an artist, this opportunity has been a luxury.”
Chris Bruning, founder of Dallas-based furniture and lighting resource Groovystuff, believes today’s younger consumers view everyday objects very differently than their parents did. “This generation documents their lives both inside and outside of the home,” he remarks. “This puts greater emphasis on everyday objects like furniture, lifting them into a more artistic category. Repurposed home furnishings fulfills this like no other category can. The story behind these elements has a direct impact on the designs people are gravitating to,” Bruning says.
Mark Klein, adjunct professor of product design in the Art & Design department at Columbia College in Chicago and a collaborator with Bruning on the undergraduate Groovystuff by Design Challenge, says the time is ripe for repurposing. “Today’s style is ‘everything’ as long as it is ‘smart design.’ Repurposing materials is smart, allowing for sustainability through re-use, extending life, and adding value,” Klein says. “Repurposed materials also give a new aesthetic that allows for artistic expression, reconsideration, and new ideas. Groovystuff is a good example of this smart design and incorporating the old with the new.”
Klein describes how Groovystuff’s college design program challenges students to transform materials like discarded teak farm implements into new furniture. “This re-consideration is not easy, especially for students just learning design principles. They first learn how to look at and design for contemporary living. Then they try to integrate the old and surplus teak into exciting new furniture design,” he affirms.
Bruning says there is an evolution of taking reclaimed material into a broader use of elements. “With the expansion of market demand for sustainable home furnishings, contemporary designers are capitalizing on a greater number of source products from vintage periods to renew timeless looks in an authentic way,” he explains. “Repurposing materials into functional home furnishings is the most challenging concept for design. When engineering this with lighting, it elevates the process and puts real science behind the innovation. Designing for the lighting industry is the pinnacle of design – and when done right, it becomes exceptional.”
Bruning’s first boneyard of reclaimed materials was a supply of antique farm wagons and tools from Thailand that he found back in 1998 when he began his company. These days, his material of choice is oil drums.
“Oil drums make their way into landfills in every country that uses petroleum,” Bruning notes. “This material, unlike teak, is something we can find here in the States, and particularly in Texas. It has allowed me to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. and launch our made-in-America Patriot collection. Each item is named after a President, such as our Washington barrel chair and the Jefferson ottoman.”
|Lamps from the Moonshine collection by Groovystuff display the patinaed colors of old oil drums.||Texas oil drums are the basis for the Patriot collection of furniture from Groovystuff.|
Bruning also discovered a supply of colorful barrels in Thailand, which he uses in his Moonshine Collection of 50 furniture, lighting, and home décor items for the Chris Bruning Signature Series by Groovystuff.
“The Moonshine Collection is the next [evolution] in sustainable home furniture, lighting, and décor; it adds a dash of color to the neutral palette of reclaimed materials. The most notable feature of this amazing material is the brilliant blues and shades of red, orange, yellow, and green. Each piece meets the latest demand for sustainable products with a more vibrant flair,” Bruning notes.
Jana Olson, owner of Panache Lighting in Berkeley, Calif., has been in the lighting business for two decades. She primarily restores antiques, but also brings to light the vision of interior designers through her custom work, and – in the process – injects her personality into her own creations.
“Somehow I got off on reusing kitchen items. I guess because they have such nice shapes and colors, and because they are somewhat sentimental. It’s a nice way to have some of these old things around and use them in a new way,” Olson details. “I use mostly circular objects as they seem to work into lighting most easily. I love working with porcelain, but the patina on old tin or copper also appeals to me. I like giving each piece a theme. For example, Dairy Queen is all white and [utilizes] milk-related objects.”
Olson’s restyled originals have a following. “It seems people are most attracted to the whimsy of reusing ordinary objects in a very different way. I like to call attention to the intrinsic shape, color, and texture of each object above its original utilitarian use. The appeal of heirloom or sentimental objects is also part of the allure,” she says.
Repurposed fixtures come with a certain caveat about meeting electrical standards. Olson is particularly sensitive to the topic, working on commercial restoration projects constantly. When it comes to her whimsical creations, she limits her sales to consumers. “It’s important to know that the fixture is well-made and electrically sound, hopefully meeting UL standards,” she warns. “Some of the artistic touches I corporate such as twisted cloth-covered cord are not UL-approved, so there can be issues if the fixtures need a UL label.”
Olson believes lighting is an ideal category for repurposed items. “We have a saying: ‘You can make a lamp out of anything.’ People have been making lamps out of bottles, musical instruments, and decommissioned fire extinguishers for years, so why not chandeliers? The choices of materials may change with fashions of the times, but the concept remains. There are so many beautiful objects out there!” Her inner artist also sees potential in casual cast-offs. “There are so many objects – plastic bottles, for example – that on their own are not so beautiful, but put together into a group can be something else entirely.”
In fact, plastic bottles are the focus in the Bubble chandelier by the Brooklyn-based design and manufacturing collective Souda. Founded by graduates of Parsons School of Design, Souda has taken the repurposed concept a step further through collaboration with a local non-profit. Inspired by the cell-like shape of soap bubbles, the chandelier is made from post-consumer PET beverage containers that are riveted together. Souda sources the bottles through a partnership with Sure We Can, a Brooklyn agency that runs the only homeless-friendly can redemption center in Manhattan and which benefits from a portion of the proceeds from each fixture. The 22”-diameter chandelier may be ordered in clear or green.
Whether appealing to high artistic standards, coaxing whimsy out of everyday objects, or making a statement on sustainability, repurposed lighting has more to offer consumers than merely presenting a pretty fixture. Shouldn’t every fixture tell a story?