Meet the Irish designers turning old things into new gems
The Covid and climate crises are driving demand for eco-conscious homewares
Agness Meehan of Agness Vintage ReDesigns at her workshop in Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Before the onset of Covid-19, there was a growing focus on the environment and the need to take urgent steps to preserve our planet and become more eco-friendly. Then attention switched to dealing with the pandemic – but perhaps because we became more aware of our fragility, or maybe because we spent a lot of time at home, the interest in recycling, reusing and upcycling has grown in recent times.
There are those however for whom such endeavours are nothing new and who have built businesses restoring old furniture or creating beautiful homewares out of discarded materials. Sean Ryan, who runs Waste Lands Salvage in Co Clare, is seeing the increased interest in reusing. “Over the last 12 months we have seen an increase in customers looking to reuse materials,” he says. “The new economy is becoming responsible, circular and sustainable.”
Emmet Bosonnet is a fan of recycling who has been creating homewares for the past five years. When working as an engineer, he had noticed a huge amount of waste metals being sent to the scrapyard.
After some research he decided to see if he could create something from the waste, and before long was making lamps, candelabras, bookends, coat hooks and a host of other items from recycled products – and so his business Kopper Kreation was born.
“I get my material from scrapyards, recycling centres, factories and installers and, more recently, I’ve had generous donations from homeowners who have purchased mid-century houses and are upgrading their heating systems,” says Emmet, who lives in Dublin.
“I think recycled products can be even more beautiful [than brand-new products]. There are countless lampshades and light fittings from the Far East which have a copper-effect finish and are nothing more than painted steel or aluminium. There is something beautiful about the natural glow from a piece of copper when exposed to an old-fashioned Edison lightbulb.”
The eco-conscious entrepreneur says it’s more important than ever to try to reuse materials in a purposeful way around our homes to reduce our carbon footprints and help with the global climate crisis. And he believes people are becoming more aware of this need amid our current circumstances.
“I think we are all seeing the amount we use around the home and are more conscious of recycling,” he says. “And I am seeing a huge amount of creativity from people who are using mundane items like pallets or plastic bottles for arts and crafts projects to entertain their kids or themselves. So I feel there is a new-found love for recycling and recycled items and hopefully I am contributing to this in some small way.”
Running separate businesses, the duo believe it is vitally important to stop and think before buying something new because sustainability needs to be at the forefront of our minds when designing our homes, and indeed older pieces are often better quality than their more modern alternatives.
“When I couldn’t find work, I decided to turn my hobby into a business, as I had become aware of what a wasteful society we had become and that we all have a responsibility to care for the environment and its resources for future generations,” says Ann Louise, who operates under the moniker Altered and Eclectic. “Also I was aware that old furniture is often better made.”
In 2017 Ann Louise started to buy pieces for upcycling from auction houses and through the small ads on adverts.ie and other online marketplaces. “I also do commissions, so people bring me their furniture, or I will source something for them and paint and upcycle accordingly.”
The Clare woman studied art and design and trained as a textile designer so has always been interested in colour, pattern, texture, and form.
“Painting furniture is just like painting big pieces of art,” she says. “In the past I painted my own furniture because there wasn’t the money to buy new. Then I began experimenting with mixed-media art and started to use furniture as a canvas, being experimental with techniques and breathing new life into pieces which had become tired and dull.” Soon she realised that other people were turning this into a business online, “so I thought I’d give it a try as there were no job offers coming in – and my business took off.
“I won the upcycling competition at ‘House’ in the RDS in 2018 and I think what makes me good is that I think about each piece individually and paint in a variety of styles – the shape of a piece determines how I paint it, which paint to use and which finish I give it. Sometimes I restore the piece to its original finish, particularly when it’s a classic piece of furniture and its original finish cannot be improved upon. I also have a soft spot for beautiful wood grains, which just shouldn’t be hidden with paint. But there are plenty of ‘uglies’ out there just waiting to be turned into swans.”
Fellow upcycler Agness Meehan, who operates as Agness Vintage ReDesigns, stumbled upon her talent when she found an old rocking chair in her garage. She decided to give it a makeover with some paint and TLC, and when someone then asked if they could buy it, she decided to try her hand at some other pieces. “It wasn’t long before I was going to estate sales, charity shops and on donedeal.ie to find my next project. Through trial and error and plenty of research, I soon learned the dos and don’ts of upcycling furniture.
“I would love to inspire others to take that first step, be creative and paint. I think there should be a lot more programmes on TV about this as there is definitely an interest.”
Ann Louise agrees and says the economic crash in 2008 may have had something to do with the upsurge in interest in upcycling in recent years.
“People are becoming increasingly aware of our environmental responsibility to use resources wisely,” she says. “The furniture painting industry is huge right now, with companies bringing out new paints, mediums and accessories all the time to help create different looks – and there are tutorials all over YouTube, as well as blogs, books and TV programmes such as Money for Nothing.
“Also people are realising that they never actually liked that sideboard Auntie Mary left them. Now it looks out of place; but it’s a quality piece of furniture, which just needs a new look.”
Kathleen Leadbetter is a glass artist who, as a director of Jerpoint Glass Studio in Co Kilkenny, has been working with this medium for decades. She says that, although there can be a lot of excess glass left over from creating pieces, she has found a way to ensure everything gets used.
“Born in the ’50s we learnt not to waste anything, and some years back when Jerpoint first introduced colour into the glass, I noticed all the lovely trimmings in various colours which found their way into the glass waste bucket,” she says. “I was determined to use them, so started putting together some of these pieces using a slumping oven – then played with shapes and colours and different melting temperatures on the oven.
“The first pieces [made this way] were more abstract, but eventually they found their way to becoming birds, butterflies, mirrors and some abstract framed pieces. It is very often the case that the broken shapes and colours will inspire the finished piece.”
Each piece Kathleen makes is entirely unique and she says it gives her a great sense of satisfaction to know that nothing in the studio will be thrown away.
“The waste produced in the world today is something we should all be aspiring to improve,” she says. “I really enjoy creating pieces and the fact that all those colourful glass jewels that once found their way to the bin are now finding a home in art.”
Trevor Woods from Dublin also creates artwork from waste, but instead of glass, he uses old keyboards and floppy discs to create contemporary wall hangings and personalised gifts. He started this venture two years ago using products found in recycling centres and skips and says it is so important for all of us to do what we can to buy recycled products where possible.
“Some of the plastic objects I use can end up in the general environment for hundreds of years if not recycled correctly, so I feel it’s important to use these as art instead of throwing them away,” he says. “And I have given talks at the Zero Waste Festival on the harmful effects of not recycling plastics.
“But a silver lining on the cloud of lockdown is that with more people spending time [at] and working from home it gives more time to think about recycling, and some recycling centres around Ireland have seen an actual increase in recycling levels.”