MidCentury Meets upcycled furniture designer Zoe Murphy
Upcycled furniture is more than just the revamping of mid century furniture with a lick of paint – it is a new way of considering its usability and longevity and its potential to be recycled for future generations – that is, at least, the view of young British designer Zoe Murphy, who specialises in turning mid century furniture into vintage inspired gems, typically using pieces from G-Plan, Remploy and Ercol.
It is surprising how many of us are wrapped up in the current throwaway, mass consumer culture where everything is considered dispensable and disposable. According to the Furniture Re-use Network around ten million items of furniture are thrown away in the UK every year, and around three million of these could easily be re-used. It is this idea of potential re-use that spurs on furniture designer and ‘upcycler’ Zoe Murphy, who salvages and restores mid century chairs, tables and sideboards that would have been destined for the skip.
While the term ‘upcycling’ is often used loosely and considered as a trend by many, Zoe is keen to stress that upcycling in its truest form actually takes on a deeper ethical significance. “There are lots of ways of re-using something. However, I believe upcycling is about increasing the life-span of the object. Mid century furniture was predominantly made from sturdy materials such as teak and oak, enabling it to be ‘usable’ for another 50 years.”
Upcycled furniture: consuming responsibly
So is upcycled furniture a fad? Zoe says no. “The trend isn’t exactly new; the concept of re-use has been around for ages and I think it will continue to become a stronger presence in everyday life. People care increasingly about the provenance of the products they purchase, whether it be a loaf of bread or a piece of furniture. It’s about consuming responsibly and I think designers will focus increasingly on creating sustainable products.”
Upcycled furniture: re-veneer and re-upholster
Zoe’s upcycling process consists of printing images onto mid century furniture. Painstakingly restoring it first, she is careful not to tamper with the function of the object. She uses offcuts of wood that would have been scrap to re-veneer mid century furniture that is too damaged to restore and she uses universal fittings for the bases and legs so that they can be replaced in the future. “It’s basically designing for disassembly”, she says. Zoe uses scraps of fabric to create intricate patchwork designs for the upholstery in bright nostalgic colours, “The concept is to use waste imaginatively and to pick a theme that people can engage with.”
Upcycled furniture: the ethos of Zoe Murphy
For Zoe Murphy, an important part of the upcycling process is using her craftsmanship to add value to an object and take the piece beyond its original form. And it’s not just a case of adding financial value, it should have an emotional value too. “A lot of my clients have inherited a piece that they feel doesn’t suit their home, but they can’t bring themselves to get rid of it. I work with them to produce something that they can love.”
“I tend to only upcycle something if it would otherwise be a waste product or in a state of disrepair. I am reluctant to change perfectly good pieces of furniture – I won’t bully it into something else. I generally salvage pieces from skips or scour online auctions, and I’ve got a couple of ‘Del Boys’ that run some of the local junk and retro shops, who offer me furniture they’ve found – typically G Plan, Remploy and sometimes Ercol.”
Zoe Murphy: the inspiration behind her upcycled furniture
Although Zoe Murphy says her upcycled furniture can be sanded down by future generations when her designs go out of fashion, it’s very unlikely you’d want to as her pieces have become designer items in their own right. Inspired by her hometown of Margate in Kent, there’s a sense of nostalgia about Zoe’s work that is easy to warm to and very universal in its appeal. Seeing Margate’s potential during her degree at Loughborough University, she has created over 300 pieces dedicated to the subject. The likes of Liberty of London love her mix of urban and coastal themes and recently commissioned her to create several pieces.
“Margate is a bit like my furniture – it is undergoing a lot of regeneration and it is very much a recycled town. Margate has been given a second chance and while it was a grotty seaside town in the ’80s and ’90s, the Old Town is a thriving creative hub now”, she says. With the new Turner Contemporary Gallery opening its doors in April 2011, support from prominent local artist Tracey Emin and a visit from the Queen herself, Margate has been treated to a new lease of life and plenty of hype in the press.
But it’s Zoe’s life-long obsession with its rough urban charm that provides her inspiration. She believes that the current Mid Century Modern design trend has come about because of the sense of positivity and progression during that period. “The 1950s were optimistic times and I think everyone can identify with the seaside holiday – even if you can’t remember the ’50s I think it evokes a sense of nostalgia and the childhood you might have had.”
So aside from her hometown, what else inspires Zoe? “I love the work of Magnum photographer Martin Parr, who interprets everyday scenes and objects in a high contrast or humorous way; he embraces our sense of Britishness and almost embarrasses us with it. I also admire Tracey Emin (and not just because she’s from Margate!). Tracy Emin’s controversial contemporary work twists subject matters and turns them on their head; she creates something beautiful from topics that are generally unpalatable.”