Upcycling is the art of taking gently used — or not-so-gently used — items such as furniture, metalware, fabrics, or wood, and with a little elbow grease and creativity, turning these items into something new. A popular home decorating trend for a few years now, upcycling keeps items out of landfills and creates pieces with character.
Got empty wine bottles? Turn them into a chandelier. Found a pair of old window shutters in the shed when you bought your house? Don’t throw them away, use them as the tops of end tables or hang them on either side of a mirror inside for a striking look. Take that old beat-up dresser from your daughter’s room from when she was a toddler, remove the fronts, slap on a new coat of paint, and create shelving.
Inspiration and the raw materials can be found in many places, from tag sales to local secondhand stores. Even at big antiques markets like the Brimfield Antique Flea Markets in Brimfield, Mass., which mostly sell antiques and vintage items, shoppers can find dealers devoted to architectural salvage as well as items made by upcyclers. There are several area stores, too, that specialize in items perfectly suited for upcycling, and a few of them even make custom pieces.
“I have seen customers use old wrought iron gates for headboards, or take a beautiful door panel and hang it like it’s a piece of art, which in a way it is,” observes Phil Lodato, chief marketing officer for United House Wrecking in Stamford. “When you use that old reclaimed wood, it has a lot of character, it tells a story. Each piece tells its own story. Another added bonus: the more ‘bumps and bruises’ they have just adds to the charm of the piece. Perfect for homes with young children and pets.”
Among the ways to repurpose architectural salvage are using windows with mirror panels to make wall décor or welding a base and adding a floating glass top above a vintage door panel to create a dramatic coffee table, Lodato says.
Kevin Mahoney, owner of Rusted Nail Salvage in Rocky Hill, finds inspiration literally lying on the side of the road, such as the window he discovered while on a drive, which he turned into a jewelry holder. He has also created a coffee table with a top consisting of reclaimed barn wood and legs made from painted black steel, resulting in an industrial-looking piece.
Dan Maly, manager of Second Chance in Stamford, says trends for upcycling furniture include refinishing pieces in a white lacquer high-gloss sheen. “Designers are looking for that,” he reports, noting that this laborious process requires many steps. “Whitewashes are also in demand, as are pieces with a mid-century modern look,” he notes.
Urban Miners, with a retail outlet in New Haven and one now opening in Bridgeport, salvages building materials and household goods and also provides space for vendors who sell upcycled furniture. Materials available for DIY projects include doors, barn wood, stained glass, roofing, and more, and the shop’s staff also creates pieces that are for sale, such as a fireplace mantel made from the framing of an 1830s home and crafting tables made of wood salvaged from tobacco barns.
Country Living magazine ran an online article in January offering 35 clever ways to upcycle flea market finds into stylish home décor. Ideas included taking a rustic tool box, turning it upside down, hanging it from the kitchen ceiling, and adding shower hooks from which to hang pots or other kitchen paraphernalia. Upcycling generally comes down to having the vision to see existing items in a new light — such as a crab trap becoming an end table, or cone-shaped lamp shades stripped of their fabric and transformed into the base for a small table, with the top possibly made from an old wooden checkerboard or shutter.
Upcycling pieces — from furniture to wire racks to the proverbial kitchen sink — is not only good for the environment but also creates conversation pieces that add a spark of personality to virtually any home.