Trash to treasure

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright finds people turning junk into objects of desire

Niki Gribble gives fresh new life to vintage plates with her designs.
Niki Gribble gives fresh new life to vintage plates with her designs.

Whether out of necessity, nostalgia or for the "thrill of the hunt'', upcycling is big business in craft circles and you can upcycle most things: a fork into coat hooks, upside-down cheese graters into pencil containers, old bottles into lanterns: if you can re-imagine it, you can build it.

Upcycling mumpreneurs

Cat Taylor, mum to two girls, started her craft business five years ago after the birth of her second daughter. Her popular range features stationery made from upcycled vintage children's books.

"I love rummaging through book sales and op shops. I have a penchant for Little Golden Books and Richard Scarry books (I still have my original books from the 70s, which are rather precious)," says Taylor, who also has friends handing down books for her art.
"My kids were horrified in the beginning and I do get a few market shoppers who growl at me for 'defacing books'," says Taylor.

"But I have a rule and only use books that have been damaged. It can take a bit of explaining."

Taylor admits to being an upcycler ever since she can remember: "I'm a hoarder by nature and have fond memories of carefully peeling the sellotape from the wrapping of my birthday presents and saving my favourite wrapping paper to make cards."

She still has a little drawer full of treasured envelopes too special to part with and finds inspiration everywhere.

"I think these days we have such an abundance of 'stuff' and live in such a throwaway world that it's lovely to be able to take something old and re-use it for something new," says Taylor. "Upcycling lets you use your own creative flair and imagination and transform something. It makes you feel good."

Tim Wigmore has exhibited his upcycled creations  in New York. Photo / David White.
Tim Wigmore has exhibited his upcycled creations in New York. Photo / David White.

Sustainable design

"I have an interest in how people interact with objects," says Tim Wigmore, who has worked on films such as Lord of the Rings, King Kong and The Hobbit. "I like to challenge people a bit, to explore materials and production techniques, and add personality and beauty to the objects we regularly come in contact with."

Wigmore's design projects outside the film industry have increased and now he concentrates on his passion for furniture, lighting and spatial design. "I've often used upcycled materials and objects in my work," says Wigmore. "I once worked as a beach cleaner and seeing the large amount of waste and debris that would float in or be discarded on the beach, I resolved to try and be a bit smarter about the materials I used and the messages conveyed through my work."

Wigmore and his fiancee Rebecca Asquith teamed up to create Designtree, which upcycled pallets as furniture for the Sustainability Trust's offices and community space in Wellington. An exhibition in New York at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair followed. "The first actual product I made exploring upcycling was a rocking stool (the Giddyup) using old or discarded saddles as the seat. This is still one of my best-selling products," says Wigmore. "The saddles each have their own individual stories and backgrounds, which are continued or added to by the current owner of the stool."

For anyone considering upcycling, Wigmore's advice is: "Do it, and good on you!"

Caroline and Rob Andrews found  a new way to make an antique-style product. Photo / Doug Sherring
Caroline and Rob Andrews found a new way to make an antique-style product. Photo / Doug Sherring

Recycling an idea

Husband and wife team Caroline and Rob Andrews loved the convex frame they bought from a Matakana antique shop so much they created a company around it. Instead of using vintage materials, they re-created the frame by upcycling an idea and resurrecting a craft in the process.

"So often we were told, 'No, you won't be able to do that', because the manufacturing process has moved on since the frame was originally made," says Rob. "We always had an end goal in mind - it was just really hard to get there."

As Mad About the Boy plays in the background, I'm shown frames partnered to artwork by Karyn Dempsey - there's a peacock in one and a rabbit smoking a pipe in another.

Caroline finds the business a respite from the demands of her two young children and pairs the frames with the artwork in a shed at the back of the couple's shady Castor Bay property, birdsong in the background.

"The most surprising thing is the amount of persistence you need," says Rob. "For a while it was a hobby that wasn't going anywhere but now we're so proud of the product and we feel it's such an achievement. This is the best part."

Caroline agrees, she adds: "The project has taught me that if someone tells you it can't be done, it probably can. My advice is just keep trying."

Vintage plates of art or

Designs can also be found on T-shirts sold exclusively by

Odd One Out, aka Niki Gribble, hand-paints designs such as skull and crossbones, shadow puppet bunnies and even Mrs and Mrs or Mr and Mr designs on to vintage plates.

She also revamps ornate frames with kitsch photographs and re-invents jewellery using vintage and found pieces.

"I absolutely have to be doing something creative, or I'm just not that happy," says Gribble, who began Odd One Out after the birth of her son, having been a textile designer previously.

"It all began quite simply with gifts for friends, then I started taking some commissions and it really grew from there," says Gribble. "Most of my work has to be stored in boxes at the moment but I dream of an open-plan studio space with a gallery wall."

She has always been interested in making things, admitting to selling her hand-painted cards and hair scrunchies at primary school. Another interest has always been upcycling and she dedicated her final-year research paper to the idea during her Bachelor of Design.

"I am really passionate about design that doesn't just add to the copious amount of rubbish that is out there in the world," says Gribble. "It makes sense to me to use materials that already exist and it just takes a bit of thinking outside the box to make them useful or desirable again."

Since starting her business, she has made many crafty friends: "I find upcyclers seek each other out. In the craft community, because we are dealing with materials that may be hard to find, we often keep an eye out for supplies for each other. The thrill of the 'hunt' for materials is sometimes as fun as the creating."

Elizabeth Cottrell with a blanket-covered chair.
Elizabeth Cottrell with a blanket-covered chair.

Old-school blankets made new

Elizabeth Cottrell fell in love with New Zealand's iconic woollen blankets after moving here from Atlanta, Georgia, 30 years ago. She took an upholstery course and combined her love of collecting antiques and her new skills to create her company Revival Furniture, featuring the vintage blankets.

"Once, there were woollen mills up and down the country. Now, there's only a few left," says Cottrell. "The tags on each blanket tell where they were made and I have some from Wanganui. That mill's now a giant SaveMart where I find second-hand ones."

Cottrell says the blankets bring out nostalgic emotions from her customers and she's met people making children's coats and dresses out of them, as well as a nurse in Taihape making jackets out of the grey ones. "People are so clever," says Cottrell, who upcycles them into rocking chairs, ottomans, couches and even Beanie Blankets - beanbags covered in blankets.

She finds the blankets on TradeMe and by scouring garage sales and says they wash well and their colours are still bright, despite their age.

"I just love to match the retro blankets with the chairs," says Cottrell.

"It's a great creative outlet for me living on a farm. I think of each piece as a little work of art."

- Herald on Sunday

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