By Jill Macnair
For furniture designer Lucy Turner, a whole business evolved out of a single mid century purchase she made seven years ago, for her tiny 17th Century cottage in Cornwall’s Penryn. Namely, a £5 Nathan mid century sideboard she found in a charity shop. Lucy delighted in cooking up plans for some upcycling. “I thought it’d look good in yellow”, she says. Which led to the idea of incorporating Formica into her cherished vintage sideboard.
Formica: an ideal material for upcycled vintage furniture
Lucy Turner, long a fan of Formica, can’t sing its praises highly enough. “Formica colours last, not like paint, which fades or looks streaky. It’s durable, wipe-clean, scratch resistant and heat resistant, which makes it perfect for table tops or sideboard tops where people tend to put coffee cups or plant pots. Plus it comes in lovely bold colours and gives a really crisp finish – I know, I sound like a Formica advert”, she jokes.
Having identified Formica as the perfect material for cladding her Nathan sideboard, Lucy started experimenting with laser cutting, “I was so surprised with how good it looked that I took my upcycled mid century sideboard to a local exhibition in Cornwall”, she recalls. One quick sale later, plus a comments book filled with positive feedback, and Lucy knew she was onto something. “I realised that through upcycling I could make people appreciate mid century furniture in another way.”
Formica: The growing popularity of upcycled vintage furniture
A host of private and commercial clients – John Lewis, The Old Cinema and Hong Kong’s chi chi Lane Crawford among them – certainly seem to think so. Perhaps because Lucy Turner’s upcycling succeeds in feeling both nostalgic and thoroughly modern, thanks to the marriage of old and new – albeit, Formica being a material that first created waves in the 1950s.
Her laser-cut patterns add a further twist to her upcycling and she favours crisp, graphic outlines to the Formica, sometimes with a touch of kitsch about them – think pineapples, peacocks and parakeets – all of which are drawn up using computer programmes. “I can’t draw”, she claims. As for the Formica colours, inspiration, she says, is nebulous. “I can’t really pinpoint what I get inspired by, at the moment I’m really into coral, which is actually quite an awkward colour to use. I don’t know why I want to use it, but that’s the way it works and when I’ve exhausted it I move onto the next colour.”
Formica: sourcing vintage sideboards and desks
When Lucy first started upcycling mid century furniture – her collection fast evolved from sideboards to desks, chests, occasional tables and cocktail cabinets – a lot of time was inevitably spent sourcing actual pieces to upcycle, at charity shops preferably, “because I like the fact that the money is recycled into something good”, she says. Also, she learnt that auctions were too distracting. “I got carried away and would end up coming away with lots of other furniture for my house.”
Lucy Turner favours mid century furniture for upcycling because of “the shapes, the clean lines and the quality teak or oak – as soon as you re-oil it, the furniture comes to life again and as soon as you add a block of colourful Formica, it accentuates the style and shape.” Interestingly, she is not fussy about brand names. “It doesn’t have to be Ercol or G plan for upcycling, but the fundamental thing is that the mid century pieces I choose to upcycle must be of really sound quality.”
Nowadays, with her growing list of commissions, she can’t afford to give as much time to the sourcing part of the process. But thankfully, early efforts mean that a quarter of her huge workshop is filled with mid century furniture waiting to for upcycling and this is regularly topped up by people who contact her about pieces they think she might want – people who have seen her work in the press and locals “who let me know when a relative has died and they’re clearing a house”, says Lucy.
This part of the process in hand, what comes next is prepping each item. “It takes a long time to do each piece. I have to restore all the wood and make the furniture look good again before starting to add the Formica”, says Lucy.
Formica: In combination with vintage furniture
As many designers have found, Lucy thinks that at first, it was hard for customers to understand upcycling and what goes into her work. “I had people saying ‘I could do that’ or ‘I’m not spending that much on something old when I could buy new’ but now I get a lot of repeat custom and people seem to understand the quality of the work and what they are paying for.”
In future, Lucy sees her business moving towards interior design – something she’s already dipped her toe into, having worked on hotels, cafes and kitchens for private clients. In the meantime, does she feel like she’s part of a furniture upcycling movement and is the motivation sustainability? “I suppose I am part of that”, she says modestly, “I’m happy that people are considering their furniture more and starting to understand upcycling and not throw things away.”
Check out Lucy Turner’s website
For more information on the material Formica, see Formica Group
For more on Lucy Turner’s designs, see Plastic Fantastic: Pineapples, Peacocks and Parakeets in MidCentury issue 04