Upcycling - a recent invention?

Upcycling - a recent invention?


Many of us are rightly proud of our upcycling credentials these days. When it comes to furniture, we can take things which we perceive have little remaining value and convert them, with a pinch of regenerative design, into items which are both fit for contemporary living and pleasing on the eye. This is of course the very best concept for keeping older furniture in circulation, and reducing demand for newly manufactured items. It’s a model which is economically and environmentally sound.

We may have given it a name – “upcycling” – fairly recently, but as a concept is it really new to us, in our era of enlightened consumer impact?

This chest of drawers provides a great example of historic “upcycling” – incorporating materials, design and techniques from several centuries. Oyster veneering was developed in the 1660s by English cabinet makers. It uses thin slices of wood cut in cross-section to form circular or oval pieces of veneer which are placed side by side to create various decorative patterns. The resulting shape brings to mind an oyster shell, hence the name. The olive wood veneer in this case is undoubtedly 17th century: the cutting and design of it, although of a beautiful high quality, retains a certain roughness that can only come from its period. As the skills and technology for cutting veneer developed and became more advanced into the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the finish as can be seen with the smoother, more polished quality of subsequent furniture. But the feet suggest a different era altogether. A 17th century piece would most likely sit on turned ball feet, but here we see brackets, a design adopted far later. The item we see today is therefore a mash up of two different periods, the carcass of a later object with a much earlier veneer applied.

It can only be assumed that whoever was responsible for this fusion had in their possession two things that they did not want to go to waste: an early veneer and a used, perhaps unusable, chest. The two have been meticulously combined to create a perfect example of “upcycling”, adding value and longevity to items that were otherwise unneeded. The care and quality that has gone into this piece is beautiful, and although not as flawless as it might once have been, it has an abundance of character. There is no deception or trickery here, just a very honest piece of furniture created through enduring craftmanship.  

In the recent short term we’ve got very used to IKEA and Amazon on tap, and the pre-requisite shipping containers circling the planet loaded down with stuff. Perhaps moderation and the middle way – the old “make do and mend” – has always, quietly, been in vogue.

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