The upcyclers - The Cheshire experts renovating vintage furniture
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 February 2020
When Macclesfield police officer Jim Clark isn’t in uniform, you’ll find him in his workshop, amidst a collection of weary-looking furniture and neon paint.
'It's a bit of a release from the stress of work,' he says of his hobby - taking old furniture and breathing new life into it; in his case with the use of bright paints, designer wallpaper and zany techniques. His work ranges from revamped mid-century sideboards to paint-drizzled mannequins made into lamps.
Jim is part of the upcycling movement - a growing number of people who, instead of buying new, prefer to take antique or second hand pieces of furniture and renovate them. On the social media platform Instagram there are 1.7 million posts with the hashtag 'upcycling'.
Part of the motivation behind the time and effort is our growing awareness around sustainability and impact of mass-production on the environment. Certainly it's something Jim is aware of: 'I am conscious the more mass-produced furniture that is made means more of those older, solid, iconic pieces end up in landfill.' Instead he wants to save those pieces and grant them a new, treasured, place in a modern setting.
The other motivation is to create something entirely unique to you. Up until recently it was all about the shabby chic aesthetic; a gentle colour palette of purposely distressed pieces that looked perfectly at home in country cottages or Victorian villas. But Jim is one of a growing number of people bringing a new dynamic.
'I have a love of bright colours and amazing designer wallpapers,' he says, citing the 90s rave scene as one of his biggest influences. 'I love experimenting with different mediums trying to create something a little bit different to the norm.'
He credits his partner, Rachel, a hair stylist, for reining him in when his colour choices become too extreme. 'Her knowledge of colour and what works is a great leveller,' he adds. 'She'll pick out colours in the wallpapers that I can base my paint choices around.'
He tends to work with mid-century items - he cites the iconic brand G-Plan as one of his favourites for its strength and sturdiness - things with which his aesthetic works well.
Also experimenting with a new kind of upcycling is Matthew Jackman, from Stockton Heath. Unlike Jim, Matthew has made a full-time career out of his passion - a professional 'furniture reimaginator' with his company The Odd Thing, which he founded almost a year ago.
His latest collection includes a pair of Scandinavian-style wooden kitchen chairs, with yellow and blue contrasting styling. There's a grey wool footstool and a tropical-themed cocktail cabinet.
'My workshop is crammed with wonderful pieces in need of tender loving care, pieces that fire up my imagination as to how they can be restored and reimagined,' he says. 'I love taking these beautifully-made items and giving them a twist and a new lease of life.
'My favourite job has been transforming a tired children's wardrobe into a sophisticated cocktail cabinet,' he says. 'I look to create practical pieces of furniture that start conversations and will be loved and used.
'Sadly, we live in a disposable world. Some of the furniture is nearly a hundred years old, wonderfully made but tired. By breathing new life into them I seek to create tactile, enduring, heirloom furniture that will be used and loved by future generations'.
Matthew's skills came into their own when he and his wife, Lucy, started restoring their 1930s home. 'The problem with an older house was sourcing furniture to fit weird-shaped alcoves,' he explains.
He designed and built bespoke pieces for the spaces they couldn't find furniture to fill. But even before that his family were big fans of upcycling, long before it became trendy.
He recalls being dragged to antiques fairs and car boot sales as a child to find a vintage bargain.
After studying fine art at university, he focused on sculpture and started working from a shed at home he designed and built himself. But he soon outgrew it and is now based in a 700 sq ft workshop that is also part showroom space.
He searches for gems on eBay and Freegle and other second hand sites. 'With vintage pieces, you never know what you're going to find underneath - loose joints, cracks - and then you have to source quality replacement materials.'
A realist, he admits not everything can be upcycled. 'There's no way you would take a Georgian sideboard and rip it to pieces,' he says. 'If you can't add anything to it, you don't try to.'
Everything Matthew produces is meticulously designed and handcrafted. 'The quality must be good enough for our own home, before it goes into a client's.'
Sarah Kelly, from Altrincham, is just as fastidious about her upcycling commissions, building up a loyal client base who often return or recommend her to friends. Five years ago she gave up her full-time job in a government agency to spend more time creating bespoke pieces of furniture - anything from footstools to chaise longues and reupholstered Chesterfield sofas.
'I resigned and did courses in painting techniques, upholstery and design,' she explains. 'I'd already started selling small pieces of furniture that I'd either made or upcycled at weekend markets, but was working out of my mum's garage which was cold and draughty - not ideal. I managed to find myself a workshop and got busy making.'
'I've moved to a new workshop now, which I share with a friend, and having a work "buddy" is great. Not only can it get lonely working on your own sometimes, but it means we each have someone to turn to when we have a tricky job or can't think how best to tackle something.'
Often, she'll be commissioned by her customers to transform a piece they're not quite sure what to do with. She'll visit the client in their home, make suggestions and together they'll decide on a vision for Sarah to execute, bringing new life and giving longevity to much-loved pieces.
Sarah finds her clients are motivated by two main factors. Firstly, of course, there's sentimentality. Not long ago, she reupholstered and rewaxed a Victorian two-seater chair for a customer who'd inherited it from her grandmother. 'She asked me to re-cover it in her own fabric so it brought the old and the new together and she was delighted with it!'
But also, an increasing number of people are realising they'd have to spend a lot of money to get the same quality in modern furniture they can find in antique pieces. To renovate is a far more cost-effective strategy.
'I recently upcycled a pair of Parker Knoll chairs and I can honestly say they are among the most comfortable chairs I've ever sat in,' she laughs.
Sarah is honest; the work is often hard - the 'lifting up, turning, moving around and then repeating during the sanding and waxing' - and probably won't ever earn her an A-list-sized paypacket. But to create something truly unique that will be loved for a lifetime? That's priceless.