Upcycling: the good, the bad and The Apprentice

So, did you see it? I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or where to look – at the TV screen or my Twitter timeline, which was buzzing with talk of nothing else!

One of the things that got me growling at the telly was the indiscriminate use of terms like ‘shabby chic’, ‘vintage’, ‘retro’ and ‘upcycling’. I honestly felt that kind of cringing you get when your grandad says the word ‘sex’. By the time it got to the boardroom and Lord Sugar was saying “upcycling” (in a tone that suggested invisible airfinger speech marks) every 30 seconds I was actually wincing and had my hands ready to cover my ears.

But from an academic perspective the thing that got me thinking most was those on Twitter who were getting angry and upset that The Apprentice candidates were making a mockery of people who sell and upcycle vintage furniture for a living. To me, they’re getting the wrong end of the stick. Those candidates went into the task thinking as I suspect many people do… “this is easy, anyone can do it.” However, what they managed to prove is that no, you can’t. Sure, anyone can stencil a Union Jack onto something (anything) or write Shabby Chic on a luggage tag and hope for the best, but to make something that’s genuinely desirable and covetable you need creativity, skill and a sense for good design.

So, for today I thought I’d post some examples of upcycled pieces that I find inspiring and innovative. Saying that, I think we definitely need a new word to describe this… every time I type upcycled I can feel my fingers tensing up!

I really like this lampshade made from vintage rulers from Roost Living. I think it works because it takes items that are already nicely designed but not overly useful (at least, not once you’ve left school) and turns them into something that’s still nicely designed but useful in a different way. No extra faff or bling – just simple and charming.

{via Apartment Therapy}

You might already be sick of the whole wooden pallet thing, but I think this pallet plate rack is still really clever. It’s a completely new use of a genuinely redundant object and fits into the room in a way that doesn’t shout about its old purpose or feel particularly contrived.

{Annaleena’s Hem}

Am I on shaky ground with this one? I’m going to argue for it because I think it’s clever, it costs almost nothing and it does something practical. No, I don’t think you should pay a single penny for someone to make it for you but I think it’s a great idea.

{Shannon Fricke via Decor8}

A good quality, functional but probably not too attractive wardrobe updated with good quality, attractive but not very functional wallpaper offcuts. Symbiotic upcycling at its best!

Of course, I’m not saying there aren’t some shocking examples out there – I was tickled that one tweeter suggested last night’s episode of The Apprentice should’ve been sponsored by Regretsy – but of course, I wouldn’t be bitchy enough to point out any bad examples.

Hang on, what’s that?

Oh. It appears that I am.

And I’ve made a special Pinterest board of the best (worst) I could find. Sorry… couldn’t help it.

Please do comment with other pieces (good and bad) and tell me what you think of the whole upcycling thing!

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  1. says

    Well, glad I didn’t see that. I loathe the Apprentice because it’s capitalism on fire. After one where they got rewarded for selling absolute rubbish on a shopping channel I never watched again. I’ve been ‘upcycling’ as a career for many many years and turned down some TV interest because I cant bear the ‘you too can make something sickeningly wacky in seconds’ flavour – mmm, and be bored of it in seconds too, yes, don’t want to be associated with that thanks. Truly inventive re-use lasts though and time, a discerning eye and the market place will mean the fake rubbish probably wont stick around.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment Madeleine – its’ really interesting to hear what someone in the industry thinks. Unfortunately though, the most depressing part of the programme was how easily buyers were sucked in by the phoney spiel and part with their cash for the horrendous stuff they’d produced.
      I mean, they were in Brick Lane but surely even the hipsters have brains???

  2. says

    Darn, i wish we got the UK version over here i’m intrigued! Strangely we had a call from them the other week about the pop up shop – my poor mum who doesn’t watch TV, had no idea who they were or what the whole thing was about and told the researcher just that! he he!

  3. says

    Exactly my thoughts about this show. I am in The Old cInema and they shot it in my space, with my machines behind them. I work very very hard at my job, and this show had a distinct lack of respect. I did meet the producers to discuss the concept beforehand, and decided that I wanted nothing to do with them. You could see the attitude and total lack of understanding of the medium reflected in the early stages of development. Saying that, the word ‘upcycling’ must go. It sounds junky, and although there is a lot of junk around, the term tend to blanket everything created with old elements.


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