Design: Second wind

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott meets two Auckland women with the knack for finding a new life for unwanted objects.

Repurposing ideas from The Boiler Room. Photo / Becky Nunes
Repurposing ideas from The Boiler Room. Photo / Becky Nunes

A hidden nest for street kids becomes tables made from industrial signs. A family dig for useful rubbish ends up as curtains made from scarves.

Inspiration can lurk in dark corners.

And in Sue Haldane's case, it was a very dark corner indeed. Fifteen years ago she was preparing for a theatrical performance in the pre-renovation Britomart Post Office building when her curiosity was piqued by a huge sheet that was blocking off the rest of the room behind their stage. It was begging to be twitched, and twitch it she did ...

"It was like when everyone left they'd just dumped the entire history of the Post Office there, it had all been left in limbo." Chairs, desks, filing cabinets, light fittings, shelving; all the perfunctorily functional stuff of an old school Government department had been left behind. Haldane thought it was beautiful, all of it, even the desiccated skeletons of the birds that had flown in but were unable to find a way out again.

What else could there be? She wandered deeper into the shambles until she found what could be called a nest. Homeless kids had at some time lived there, and to make themselves cosy they'd stuffed old post office bags to serve as pillows and were using canvas letter sacks as sleeping bags. Old metal sheets had been hung from railings and from the markings it looked like they'd been beaten to make one hell of a racket.

"This was why I started The Boiler Room," says Haldane. "They had taken all these different bits and pieces and created this marae-style living area. You want to talk about repurposing? That was it."

It took three months of negotiating to get into the building, pull out whatever they could before it was junked, and set about starting a new career in furniture design.

Her concept wasn't just to make the old new again, it was to recreate pieces in ways their creators never imagined, and Haldane's accumulation of industrial relics didn't stop with Britomart. Old railway workshops, factories and offices were scoured until she'd filled several containers with monstrous bits and tiny bobs many wouldn't look twice at, let alone consider taking home.

Under her tender mercies a gas cylinder station became a fetching set of shelves, old chairs were recovered with Post Office airmail bags, and a Radiant Boiler sign from the Meremere Powerstation was flipped to make a table top.

Initially run out of a space in Kingsland, The Boiler Room is now based at her home in Muriwai where she and her team of "makers" mostly work on commissioned projects that transform the ordinary and mundane into artful records of our past.

"For me it's the theatre and the story," she says. "The story of the guys who made these things, the guys who worked under the trains. I got to meet a lot of them while I was out and about and I really wish I'd been able to record them because most of them aren't there any more and no one has replaced them. What they made gives me a sense of a time that doesn't exist anymore, a sense of an era that was fully earthed, that was solid, when a thing was made well and to last, and we try to bring these pieces into the modern home.

"Yes, industrial furniture has become much more fashionable and there has been a trend coming through, but it's led to this whole tickety-boo reproduction thing to get 'the look'. For me it should be more about a connection to the history and stories of the places these things came from rather than chasing a look; it just makes my soul sing when I know that something is real and I know from our old shop that people buying these things love knowing those stories too."

Sarah Lancaster has a similar outlook, even if it's softer with a more domestic leaning.
After being introduced to a sewing circle by her mother, she's now setting about bringing others into the fold. But her mission isn't simply about craft revival - what Haldane sees in a battered office chair, Lancaster sees in fabric. Her creations also connect us to places, people and time. For instance, she helped a neighbour whose father had died to make cushions from his old dressing gowns which were then passed on to other family members as functional household items with a lifetime of memories in tow. Among Lancaster's own projects has been a set of curtains constructed from old scarves.

"I think it's important that these things get reused rather than being hidden in a cupboard never to be touched again until someone gets tired of storing them and hands it all on to the Sallies [Salvation Army]. It's about honouring the past and keeping those memories alive."

It's also, to no small degree, about the environment. While backpacking in South America, Lancaster saw families at the bottom of the social heap scavenging for anything that could be remade and resold. "It's reusing waste, things you might throw out, and using whatever skills you have to do it. There is so much stuff that people don't think of reusing ... who checks the old linen and sheets in an op shop? It's about becoming a more cautious consumer, knowing where your materials come from and acknowledging and respecting the skills of people who made them."

The 27-year-old pulled all these threads together last April to launch Lovesewteado.com, as in (Learn to) Sew (and) Love (the Earth over a cup of) Tea (we can) Do (good).

The idea is to pass on her skills in a social atmosphere where tea is drunk and stories are swapped. She regularly trucks her 10 sewing machines from Thames to Auckland to run workshops, a regular pop-up space at Karangahape Rd's First Thursday community art event (the next is scheduled for May 1) and the odd op shop tour where people are invited to come up with their own ideas for reinventing someone else's discards.

"For me, rather than being a sustainable fashion and homewear designer I thought it would be more useful to help other people to be able to do stuff for themselves. The old homesewn era has gone, fast fashion and cheap and cheerful homewear have taken over, but if I can help anyone find some pride in making something well while also keeping old skills alive in a joyful environment, well, that makes me feel pretty good."

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- NZ Herald

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