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The Art of Upcycling in Cape Town
Reviewing the trend that’s repurposing ‘rubbish’
While most may look at a beaten, worn-out suitcase and perceive only worthless waste, Katie Thompson – founder of Woodstock-based repurposed furniture store Recreate – sees only an exciting opportunity to reconceptualise, refurbish and reinvent.
As one of the respected champions of the upcycling movement in Cape Town, this gifted designer is at the forefront of the burgeoning trend that calls for the innovative redesign of those objects that are regarded as ‘junk’ or are no longer used for their original function. Creatives, like Katie, who’ve taken the fresh aesthetic by the horns, are making use of discards to develop something different, something novel, something of higher value (hence the term ‘up’) and renewed worth – a clock created from an old kitchen scale, a lamp from a tossed-out jar, for instance.
Not to be confused with ‘vintage’ – yet another fashionable Cape Town catchphrase that’s thrown around somewhat loosely – repurposing (as upcycling is also known) is not simply about reusing an item, but about finding a fresh, unexpected and inventive application for it. So, whereas a vintage collectible – granny’s 1950s frock, for example – still has inherent value in its original form and role, an upcycled product has been altered from its purposeless state to give it new life and worth.
Similarly, as Katie makes a point of clarifying, there are also fundamental distinctions between the concepts of recycling and repurposing. While recycling, by definition, breaks down a waste product to build it up again into the same entity, upcycling simply takes ‘waste’ as it is and turns it into something else entirely. In this way, although both are hugely beneficial as they encourage the reuse of old materials, because repurposing requires far fewer processes than recycling, it can be considered an even more sustainable, eco-friendly practice.
But this innovative trend differs from recycling in other ways too. Far from being merely a necessary, ‘save-the-planet’ physical procedure, upcycling is, in fact, also an ingenious new art form. With quality, inspired finishes and appealing aesthetics, the repurposing movement is going some way to encouraging all individuals to get creative with junk, to be resourceful with what’s already lying around, and to develop a renewed appreciation for all of that ‘worthless waste’ that was once so casually thrust aside and thrown away.
Pioneering this shift in perceptions in the Mother City are a number of enterprising upcycling designers and companies, all united by a common passion for the old and unconventional and a remarkable ability to see potential in something long expired. So, to inspire some support for these individuals, and for the growing trend in general, we’ve compiled a short list of Cape Town shops and brands that are successfully converting castoffs into extraordinary works of craftsmanship.
UPCYCLING ENTERPRISES IN CAPE TOWN
Launched in 2009 by ever-innovative interior designer Katie Thompson, this repurposed furniture and lighting store in Woodstock is an enchanting reflection of its owner’s vivid imagination, incurable inclination to hoard and deep dislike for discarding anything seemingly worthless or useless. In fact, it was her resolute commitment to renovate one mouldy, broken garden chair that first inspired the range. Today, from the studio, Katie handcrafts and sells a quirky collection of furniture and homeware accessories imbued with new life and function, all converted from others’ unwanted discards and garage sale throw-outs. While her suitcase chairs (small sofa-type seats made from upholstered vintage suitcases and trunks) are most iconic of the brand, Katie also creates clocks from broken kitchen scales, stools from tossed out hat boxes, ottomans from old metal tubs , side tables from outdated book presses, lamps from milk bottles, hoovers and typewriters and coffee tables from obsolete printer’s trays. Although all made from ‘junk’, the items effectively echo the ‘up’ in upcycling with high-end finishes and refined, quality details – something Katie considers paramount. Held equally close to her heart is originality; despite the fact that most pieces are part of a series, each one is entirely unique and, thanks to its unusual provenance, is infused with its own inimitable character.
368 Albert Road | Woodstock | Cape Town | +27 (0)21 447 0007
Note: A selection of items from the Recreate range can also be found at Africa Nova in Green Point and The Fringe Arts pop-up shop at the V&A Waterfront.
The WREN Design
The cherished project of Cape Town-based textile designer Wendren Setzer and her team of five, WREN is an unusual range of bags inspired by the founder’s passion for sustainable, organic materials that have lived an interesting life before. All items in the selection – which includes travel bags, carry-alls, duffels, classic shoulder and sling bags, laptop bags and zipper pouches in various sizes – are carefully crafted from antique (pre-1900s) hand-woven linen grain sacks; used, well-travelled coffee bean bags sourced from Cape Town roasteries; and old cement paper packaging rejects or overruns from Pretoria Portland Cement (PPC) (used exclusively for the laptop bags). By converting such discarded, spent industrial scraps into stylish, edgy fashion accessories, WREN not only supports environmentally responsible production, but also encourages out-of-the-box thinking about the many potential uses of certain overlooked materials – a key aim of Botswana-born Wendren’s and a cornerstone of the repurposing movement, of course. The WREN bags – which are all delightfully unique – are available online (via a virtual purchasing form at www.thewrendesign.com), as well as at The Fringe Arts on Kloof Street and The Fringe Arts pop-up shop at Alfred Mall at the V&A Waterfront. The PPC cement laptop bags, complete with the company’s striking elephant logo, are also stocked at Artvark in Kalk Bay.
A prime (and especially pretty) example of upcycling, this unconventional handcrafted jewellery collection was first launched by Stellenbosch jewellery design graduates Moniek van Zyl and Marlet Strauss as a resourceful way to get around the exorbitant price of silver. Instead of using new, costly metals to mould their range of trinkets and treasures, these two creatives make use of old collected cutlery, especially vintage spoons (many of them others’ family heirlooms), that are shaped and cast and pierced into a playful array of bracelets, necklaces, earrings, hairpins and rings. Although all of their pieces are somewhat exceptional – aptly reflecting the brand name Anomali – the most eye-catching in the selection are the necklace pendants: souvenir spoons that have been artfully cut so that the interplay of metal and negative space forms an elaborate, multi-layered, and often whimsical design. Equally quirky works of art include the watch glass pendants (made from the glass of worn-out watches) and the limited edition bookmarks composed from spoons, cake forks and connecting chains on offer only at La Motte estate. Uniting all of their jewellery is the repurposing philosophy that resonates throughout the brand; even those pieces not obviously converted from cutlery are still made from melted down off-cuts thereof. Of course, as they rely on rare collectables which are often in scarce supply, the range is always evolving and the founders are always challenged to find new ways to beautify old objects.
Delvera Farm | R44 | Stellenbosch | +27 (0)78 552 7851/ +27 (0)82 556 1926
Note: In addition to the label’s Delvera shop, Anomali jewellery is available at The Fringe Arts on Kloof Street and at the V&A Waterfront, NAP living at the Cape Quarter Lifestyle Village and Haas Collective in the Bo-Kaap.
A late 2011 addition to the budding Mother City upcycling scene, this quirky label – the brainchild of Woodstock-based designer Kendall Conlong – is perhaps most well known for its unconventional range of origami chandeliers crafted from flocks of delicate paper cranes. Each of these enchanting installations is handmade by Kendall – who is inspired equally by the fascinating forms produced by this art form and by the potential of materials that were something else before – from discarded magazine paper (the ‘frivolous flock’ range), aged music sheets found at markets (the ‘prodigy’ range) and old maps from hospices (the ‘jetsetter’ range). In this way, she deliberately turns items that would otherwise see the inside of recycling bins into striking, eco-friendly décor pieces. Not limited to paper cranes though, this versatile creative also willingly takes on customised projects to experiment with different shapes (African animals, for instance), colours and materials. Also in her collection is an assortment of innovative pendant lamps, hung either individually or in clusters, made from converted classic glass jars – a resourceful, off-beat way to light up a garden or home space. While the standard chandelier ranges can be viewed at the Eat Cake studio in Woodstock, interested customers can also order any items, or negotiate bespoke works, via the brand’s website (www.eat-cake.co.za) or directly from Kendall on +27 (0)72 427 1161.
By Dayle Kavonic
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More of a fan of retro than repurposed? Have a gander at our listing of vintage clothing stores in Cape Town.