AS much as it is a chore, Chinese New Year would not be complete without spring cleaning, the annual ritual of throwing out what does not work or is no longer needed. But what is considered junk to one person may be a piece of treasure to another. A number of designers are giving what is no longer shiny and new a new lease of life.
Unlike recycling, "upcycling" converts wastebound materials into lifestyle products of better quality or for better environmental value. The mantra, new year, new beginnings could well apply to upcycled items too.
District Eight Design
Journey East, 315 Outram Road
Tan Boon Liat Building, #03-02
Tel: 6473 1693
SINGAPOREAN-AUSTRALIAN Darren Chew will have you know that junkyards are nothing to pooh pooh at. After all, it was the junkyards in Ho Chi Minh City that spawned District Eight Design, a collection of vintage and modern industrial furniture, which Mr Chew designs.
In one of the many junkyards, Mr Chew salvages a pair of cast iron legs from a stamp machine, which he then turns into the legs of a dining table while another desk is fashioned from an old sewing machine base.
District Eight Design started three years ago, and is now retailing at Journey East in Singapore. But the story began earlier, when Mr Chew, who also is the founder of a garment manufacturing company, was starting a boutique coffee and retail space in the Vietnamese city.
Rather than buy off the shelf furniture and also because he found it difficult to find the kind of furniture he wanted, Mr Chew, who trained as a chef, built all the furniture from scratch, and was mainly influenced by the machine parts remaining from the early industrialisation during the French colonial period.
The L'Usine store has stools and tables, all with an industrial chic look. Soon, the furniture became the talking point among customers, with some wanting to buy the pieces. Seeing potential in this, Mr Chew decided to start District Eight Design. The company is named after the suburban neighbourhood in Ho Chi Minh City, where Mr Chew has his office.
Some of the more unusual things that Mr Chew has found in junkyards include parts of a helicopter, which he is still finding uses for. He mostly salvages parts of printing presses, industrial castors, to small items such as bolts and washers. It is not only machine parts, which would otherwise have been melted down, that can used. Wherever possible, the wood used for the pieces are recycled as well, usually from old buildings which have been demolished.
The salvaged material are kept in a warehouse. "Sometimes, the different parts don't fit together to form a piece of furniture, so it takes time to find the right pieces," says Mr Chew. "But in some cases, it is quite clear how best I can use the parts."
One unique piece in the collection is the foosball table, which Mr Chew designed, after not being able to find a good looking one in Vietnam. Some parts of the $9,100 table were once unwanted material such as the reclaimed hardwood and the brass used to form the football players.
The brand's best-seller however, are its barstools, priced from $400, which are made from recycled cast iron.
Besides Vietnam and Singapore, District Eight Design's pieces are sold in North America, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia.
Mr Chew says the industrial chic look has its appeal especially to those who "are not into the antique look, but appreciate how things are made. They appreciate quality over disposable stuff."
The Rocking Chair
80 Playfair Road, Kapo Factory
Block A, #03-08
Tel: 6282 9978 / 9791 7491
BECOMING a carpenter in this day and age isn't the most attractive career option. Firstly, the money isn't very attractive to begin with. And what's worse, it's getting harder to find a rental space that still allows painting and heavy labour.
But that did little to deter Jay Sim, one of the owners of The Rocking Chair, from going into the trade. In fact, he admits that he enjoys it more than his old corporate job, becase at least he now comes to work everyday with a smile.
"I was doing public relations for several years, and I couldn't get used to it. Wearing the shirt, tie and pants. That wasn't really the life for me. I actually find sanding, painting and all that kind of therapeutic, even though it's real hard work," says Sim of carpentry work he does for the upcycling company he started with his wife, Pearl Leong, about nine months ago.
The couple pick up unwanted furniture mainly from local refuse centres, or have them shipped in from the United Kingdom, and then restore or upcycle them. The criteria for the condition of these pieces of furniture usually varies, however, depending on their rarity and how much work has to go into making them usable again.
Some of Mr Sim's recent masterpieces include a range of 'old-school' kopitiam chairs that were thrown out after a restaurant had to close down.
He explains that it took him about four days to strip it of its original varnish, patch it up, and sand it down multiple times before he could repaint them with his own designs.
Right now, three of these chairs are on display at their shop and are priced at $300 each. They also carry a proud new coat of paint, themed according to the popular movie and television shows Star Wars, Dexter and Breaking Bad.
"It's fun to give a new lease of life to something that's old. It's quite satisfying. Especially because I find it such a real waste to see old stuff from the '70s being thrown out," explains Mr Sim.
True to its name, what The Rocking Chair is best known for is their modern spin on the classic brown rocking chairs, which they get from a supplier and paint in customised colours.
The rocking chairs, which retail at $420 each, are fondly dubbed Rockabyes, and are one of the two staple products that they make sure are constantly available to order. The other is an industrial fan which they customise by painting the blades and sell for $290 each.
"I think people appreciate these things (instead of just buying) off the shelf; and for us to be able to help them source around for ideas on how to make things different so your home doesn't look like your run of the mill home," explains Ms Leong.
56 Tanglin Road #02-01/02
Tel: 6735 0511
INSTEAD of discarding odd and ends of leather hides, German furniture brand Domicil upcycles them as part of a sustainability initiative. The unwanted leather hides are used to create a range of accessories that are both friendly to the environment and pleasing to the eye.
Made from the leather hides of previous collections, the Domicil:Upcycled range of tote bags and footstools are fashioned out of the same premium grade, top-grain hides used to make Domicil's sofas and recliners. This lends to the accessories a soft hand-feel and plushness that is unique to upholstery leather.
"Each Domicil sofa is crafted using no less than five or six high quality, top-grain, full-sized leather hides which are treated to give them scratch and splash resistant qualities," said Phua Bowen, Domicil's retail manager.
"Every time a new collection is launched, there will be a small quantity of these hides remaining from the previous collection that tend to go to waste. This range of upcycled accessories is part of Domicil's commitment to reduce waste and conserve environmental resources," says Mr Phua.
As the leather hides are in extremely limited quantities, the accessories in the Domicil:Upcycled range are all one-of-a-kind. The tote bags, which retail for $38, come in various colours, while the footstools, priced from $58, come in different sizes.
Art From Junk
"ART doesn't necessarily have to be restricted to conventional forms," says Woon Jing Yi. For the former lawyer, art can come in the form of second-hand or vintage furniture.
Ms Woon is the founder of Art From Junk, a small studio business. "My goal is to create unexpected and beautiful art pieces from ordinary second-hand furniture," says Ms Woon. "Second-hand and vintage pieces are often sturdily made and have lots of life left in them, so I felt it was meaningful to recycle these pieces."
Painting furniture started off as a hobby for her. "I have always enjoyed art and I trawled vintage and second-hand shops on a regular basis, so it wasn't long before I was making over my own, and other people's thrift store finds," she says.
She sources second-hand pieces from local furniture dealers, picking up pieces that are well made and are still in good condition, and at times, selecting pieces with more unique design features.
The furniture, from coffee and dining tables to side drawers and chairs, undergo a transformation in Ms Woon's Bukit Merah studio.
She usually starts with an idea for the artwork design of the piece. It can be as simple as a blue and white porcelain piece that is the inspiration. "I will then do research for inspiration pictures and will usually do a few sketches of the design to get a feel of how it will look," says Ms Woon, who has no formal training in art. "I also try to ensure that the design of the artwork complements any unique structural elements of the piece. I only start painting when I'm satisfied with the artwork design."
Depending on the size of the piece and the complexity of the artwork, it can take from two to 10 days to restore and paint the piece, execute the artwork and finish the piece.
Ms Woon uses oil-based enamel paints for durability and finished pieces are given a coat of polyurethane vanish and furniture wax to protect the paintwork.
Most of her artwork have a retro theme. "I love local vintage designs and motifs because I feel a personal connection to them and also because vintage and retro items are often handmade and incorporate lots of exciting colours and patterns," she explains. There are a few more modern pieces in her collection, such as a damask and chrysanthemum drawer set and the herringbone Z-chair.
A coffee table costs about $600, while a dining table with a table top painted to resemble mosaic tiles costs $2,000. Ms Woon says there isn't a best seller in her collection. "Each is really one-of-a-kind."
Her clients are "people who love the quirky and the unexpected". "They enjoy statement pieces that stand out," she says.
Ms Woon also takes on customisation jobs. "Often, clients are interested in re-creating a design they have seen on one of my pieces, on their own piece of furniture," she says.
She adds: "The furniture that surrounds us everyday makes a great, albeit unusual, canvas to express our creativity and personality."