A growing number of Indian designers are taking old, unwanted junk and ‘upcycling’ them into trendy collectibles
What do you do with a wheelbarrow that’s lost its traction? Wheel it out of the garden, and if you were Sara Vetteth, into the living room. Vetteth, a home-ware designer, has a gift for mining the multiple lives of abandoned objects. She’ll draw out life forms concealed deep within their worm-eaten, surfaces, and sometimes even couple two old souls in a way that makes them wonder how they ever lived apart. It’s what the wheelbarrow asked the key cabinet that now lies solidly across its barrow face. The shallow Burma teak cabinet — now buffed and beautiful — and the now dignified garden utility have been brought together to make a striking coffee table centerpiece. “You can even display books or interesting bits and bobs inside the cabinet,” offers Vetteth.
“The wheelbarrow, from Binny mills, was still being used by the owner of the junk shop where I found it, and he wasn’t willing to sell,” recalls the designer, who routinely picks up promising pieces of discarded furniture on her travels, without immediate plans for them. But when the inspiration does strike, it raises the object to a whole new plane of existence. It’s how a single staircase baluster found itself serving as a candle stand (propped on a wooden block) and a carved column capital was transfigured into a queenly votive holder. At Vetteth’s interior store, Palmyra, in downtown Chennai, whole wooden doors are laid flat beneath glass and dished out as dining tables, wrought iron window jalis make centre tables, two coal irons are propped up to make book ends, an elaboratively carved roof beam from Tamil Nadu is cut to size to form a grand centre table, it’s floral relief cutting a sharp profile.
Vetteth is part of a growing league of upcyclist product designers who rehabilitate castoffs — anything from rubber tyres to rusty cutlery. They add value to them by situating them in alternative contexts, assigning them a new purpose and function, slapping on a price-tag and making a sale. The upshot is these objects are also saved from the landfill. Call it innovation for ecology, although it won’t really make a dent in the dump unless it’s practised on a large-scale. But what is growing is the interest in repurposing old objects. Assembling a stool from scratch may demand a working knowledge of furniture design, but improving on an existing model rquires nothing more than an eye for surprise.
Kumar Prashant, a mechanical engineer with a knack for knocking together race cars, has lately diverted his attention to scavenging. He prospects on the internet, inviting people to drop off their unwanted odds and ends at his 3,000 sq ft warehouse/studio in Pune. He then fixes his attention on an object that he can tinker with, and after a few days of “R&D” turns out a prototype that his team of five workmen can expertly replicate. Prashant founded the label Rebirth with his colleague Nivedita Joshi Chopra nine months ago, and they’ve already tricked out a few restaurants and pubs in Pune in their cutglass (bottle) chandeliers. “We’re now working with rubber tyres, fashioning them into dog beds, pots and portable ponds,” he says. It was initially not an easy business to crack, Prashant admits, because people wouldn’t want to buy what they saw essentially as waste, but they’re now coming around to view a reworked object for its aesthetic and ingenuity and not simply for its base material. Rebirth makes an average monthly turnover of Rs 60,000 to 80,000, and months when they get big commissions, the number spirals. This month they were tasked with installing a phoenix-shaped centerpiece for Phoenix Market City, Pune, made entirely of plastic bottles to commemorate World Environment Day.
But at the end of day, consumers won’t buy upcycled goods for moral points alone. “Upcycled products have to look attractive,” says Prashant, playing up the vital difference between upcycled and recycled objects, the latter not always able to deliver on both utility and beauty. “The object should be well finished; no one should be able to tell it’s trash.”
“And we’re not selling it as such,” emphasises Suren Vikhash, design facilitator at Thunk, a Coimbatore-based company that upcycles polythene covers, tetrapak waste and automobile parts to fashion things as disparate as bags and furniture. “We pick materials that are nonbiodegradable; things that pollute,” says Vikhash, whose company also looks to
create employment for local communities.
Sophistication is key, agrees Anjali Venkat whose experiments with the bottle have earned her a following as far as America, where she retails her wares. Venkat turns ordinary perfume and alcohol bottles into functional art that serve a purpose and became conversational pieces. “If I screw up and break a bottle, I take a hammer to it, smash it to smithereens, and then reassemble it in the kiln as a bowl or dish,” says Venkat, whose reserve of bottles is regularly replenished by the three kabadiwalas on her rolls. “Even friends now drop off their wine bottles after a party,” she says.
But just because it was pulled out of a pile of junk doesn’t undercut the cost of tricking up a rescued object or discount the ‘intellectual’ price of thinking up new ways to use it, for these objects are often sold as one-of-a-kind designer prizes. Some of Vetteth’s reworked pieces deliberately show signs of strain, and she does admit to a fondness for rough edges, but they speak for a certain voguish distress that’s currently in favour. Moreover, these reworked objects bear the unique imprint of their creator, and are not factory-line facsimiles, which is why they’re often sold at a premium.
“Upcycling can be labour-intensive,” acknowledges Dhara Kabaria, a designer who co-owns the Pune-based Studio Alternatives, a firm that specialises in design solutions, upcycled furniture and home accessories. Unlike most others who work with scrap intuitively, Kabaria actually researched the nuts and bolts of the business when she studied at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, Rochester, where she focused her final project on the alternative uses of material in design. “Even though the cost of material is low, the time and trouble — not to mention thought — invested in resurrecting it in a new form justifies the price at which it retails,” she claims. “While normal design processes first conceive of a design and then source the material for it, we look first for interesting material, and then consider ways to work with it, after its quality and character is assessed.”
Kabaria is the sort of upcyclist who sees potential in all manner of scrap, which is why she employs a team of craftsmen who’ve been trained to work with multiple materials including wood, plastic, metal and cloth. Studio Alternatives puts out stools made of used paint buckets, birdcage lamps of shredded shopping bags, computer motherboard wall reliefs, table bases fashioned out of water bottles, and so on. However, the market is slow, she admits. “I give it five more years for the upcycled market to pick up,” predicts Kabaria, who presently only retails online at designemporia.in. She manages to sustain her upcycled lines, titled ‘Re-new’ and ‘Re-use’, via the sale of her virgin woodwork and interior design projects.
Upcyling may be as old as the woods, as testified by granny’s patchwork quilts, but its new glamorous avatar is certainly finding new followers.
JOEANNA REBELLO FERNANDES TCR130615