Neo-retro: Used furniture gets a loving lift at the Big Up

Unwanted heirlooms and skip finds can be given a whole new look with ‘a bit of magic’ from Dún Laoghaire workshop

When Nawal Kabouche-Kouadri arrived in Ireland 10 years ago the Celtic Tiger was still roaring, "and I discovered the skip", she says. She didn't know what it was until her neighbour enlightened her. Seeing tables, sideboards and chairs jettisoned "in perfect condition" horrified Nawal, who knew that from Barcelona to Brussels there were shops selling retro, mid-century art deco and other styles.

One avenue in Brussels sold nothing else.

Having worked in tourism with weekends spent at vintage markets in Paris, Nawal trained in interior design at Dún Laoghaire Senior College (for which she won Graduate of the Year and a distinction.) She then added sustainability to the mix: "I wanted to think outside the box in terms of interior design."

She prefers to use the term “neo-retro”, coined by a young French architect. The word “upcycling”, she feels, has become a bit pejorative. “Is a lick of paint upcycling?”she asks. As well as selling finished pieces from the shop on Upper George’s Street, the Big Up offers an interior design package from €240 for a room.


One feature of the Big Up is helping clients retain pieces which have sentimental value but adapting them to 2017 lifestyle needs. Young couples may have large items given to them by family but are unsure about what to do with them. Older furniture has usually been well crafted, unlike modern MDF. What the customer ends up with is a unique piece which won’t be found in a department store. Several of Nawal’s clients live locally in Dún Laoghaire and she offers a personalised approach to each.

Two dining tables have been made from reclaimed wood flooring, one fitted over the restored base of a old dining table. A client’s commission for office storage has been made from an old sideboard. In this case the attractive wooden handles were left in situ but the wood of the doors was too bad, so had to be painted. One door was removed and a shelf inserted. The top was “wrecked”, so it was replaced, again with reclaimed wood flooring.

‘Breathe new life’

"We just lend a hand to breathe new life into already existing materials," says Philip Donovan, one of the team members. "It also forces people to challenge themselves as to what furniture can be. It's taking traditional furniture out of its comfort zone."

The nearby workshop is stuffed full of furniture either being worked on or awaiting its turn. Jaroslaw Blaszczak is busy working on a pine cupboard and chest of drawers for the son of one client.

“We’re fixing it first and afterwards we’re going to do a bit of magic to make it funky for the little boy,” says Nawal. In another part of the workshop Jaroslaw has created a drawer for a table that was once part of a nest of tables. He shows how he has just applied a piece of veneer he retrieved from an old piece onto a retro filing cabinet and explains how much work goes into this sort of upcycling.

"It's not Ikea you know," he says. Only natural oil or wax rather than varnish or lacquer is used by Jaroslaw to finish tables – one of which, an antique, was in three pieces before being put back together. Now French polished, it graces a fine dining room which is just missing chairs – Nawal is still on the lookout for the right ones to complement it.

In one kitchen Nawal's team are going to create a kitchen island from a 1940s desk which, although "a bit boring", has lovely panelling. Her client Annie Murphy says Nawal has an "incredible talent" being able to visualise the end result in advance, taking all the surroundings into account. Annie feels Nawal is not going to get the first thing she sees but will keep looking for the right piece.

Nawal and her clients aren’t afraid to mix styles in the one room. In one living room there is seating from several eras but there’s no jarring note, and the three colours are pulled together by an understated rug which complements them.

“I think timeless is the important word – what you don’t want is in 10 years for this to be out of date,”she says.

When working with this client a box of mementos was found which included items belonging to a grandfather. Nawal suggested displaying these – two top hats and a bowler among them – in a cabinet, which has been expertly repaired, having had a top that was entirely cracked.

"I find it so exciting to use again what someone has thrown out," says Nawal. Saving old furniture from landfill, it's no surprise that in less than a year The Big Up was awarded a Junior Chamber Ireland Dublin Southside eco-friendliness award.