The only way is upcycling: Meet the designers giving a new lease of life to furniture that might otherwise be dumped

28 Jan 2022

IP Agness Meehan of Ag 2

In the novelty-driven world of interiors, upcycled is the new new.

Upcycling is a movement driven by sustainability and the circular economy, fuelled by climate change, and represents the most fun that you can have with old furniture. There are knock-on benefits in every conceivable direction.

It involves rescuing old items that would otherwise have gone to landfill and transforming them into something desirable. Cue ReFunk, a Dublin-based platform that facilitates donating, upcycling and selling second-hand furniture.

It’s a new sustainability business launched in 2020 by four recent graduates: Meredith Davis, Ellen Ryall, Anna Sheehan and Ellie Walters. Refunk is an eCommerce platform that aims to connect the person getting rid of furniture to the person who can transform it into something desirable to the person who wants to buy it.

It’s a complicated business model but it has the potential to be the missing link in the circular furniture economy.

From left, Meredith Davis, Ellen Ryall, Ellie Walters and Anna Sheehan of Refunk
From left, Meredith Davis, Ellen Ryall, Ellie Walters and Anna Sheehan of Refunk
“If someone is disposing of furniture we can collect it.” Ryall explains. This is a free service but the furniture has to be wooden, salvageable, and in the Dublin area. “We don’t take it if it’s completely falling apart, but a missing drawer or a broken leg is OK. We can fix that.”

Once they’ve collected the piece they bring it to their storage depot, photograph it, and upload it to their website for sale. Then, there are three options: you can buy it as it is; request a basic upcycle – basically a repair and a lick of paint or varnish; or ask for a Refunk custom upcycle.

“We have between 90 and 100 upcyclers on our database and we know all of their unique styles.” The piece of furniture then goes to the upcycler who gives it a new lease of life, often in conversation with the buyer.

Prices vary but pieces currently advertised include an upcycled small cupboard (€200) and a chair with padded seat (€100) both in bouncy teal blue. Delivery in the Dublin area costs €15. At the time of writing, the team is working hard on automating the process. In the meantime, they also sell on Instagram.

Upcycled cupboard by Ann Tyson
Upcycled cupboard by Ann Tyson

For those that want to learn upcycling skills, the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun runs regular courses and also has an eco-store where you can buy finished pieces.

Last month, they hosted the prize-giving for the annual Upcycle Challenge, organised by MyWaste. The competition, with prizes in several categories, involves taking an item that would have gone to landfill and turning it into something new.

In 2021, Anne Louise Tyson of Altered and Eclectic won the Professional category for an upcycled a mid-century sideboard, painted with geometric patterns which flowed between the cavity spaces inside the cabinet, visible through a sliding glass panel, and the exterior. The piece had a bit of character from the get-go.

Upcycled furniture from The Revamp Tramp

Upcycled furniture from The Revamp Tramp

“I like to work with vintage solid wood furniture and I’d always choose slightly odd pieces,” she says. “People like something different with an interesting shape.”

Tyson, who is based in Tulla, Co Clare, works in two ways. She upcycles and sells rescued furniture and she also works to commission, upcycling people’s own furniture. With a background in textile design, she has an affinity with texture and colour.

“I’d always talk to the client about the colours that they like before we get started. One woman came into the meeting with a scarf she loved and I ended up designing her whole bedroom based on those colours.” Tyson sells her work on Facebook and Instagram and her prices range from €120 for a bedside locker to €550 for a sideboard.

Upcycled furniture with prints by Agnieszka Meehan
Upcycled furniture with prints by Agnieszka Meehan

Another winner, Agnieszka Meehan from Crusheen in Co Clare, transformed an old wooden chair into a toy fire truck. It’s a fun piece, but not really representative of her innovative zesty work.

“It began as a hobby during lockdown,” says Meehan, who formerly worked as a hairdresser. “I was bored and I started painting furniture.” Most Irish upcyclers use chalk paint but that didn’t suit
Meehan, who got in touch with a paint producer in her native Poland and launched her own company, New Colours, selling acrylic paint specifically for upcycling.

“I think upcycling only arrived in Ireland recently,” she says. “In Poland, it is huge. You can contact the factories and they can print whatever you design on fabric or transfers.”

Upcycled furniture from Agnieszka Meehan
Upcycled furniture from Agnieszka Meehan

Most Irish upcycling is focused on wooden furniture but Meehan also works with upholstered pieces, using fabric of her own design. She sells these on Facebook operating as Agness Vintage Redesigns; prices range from €50 for a small side table to €500 for a small table and four chairs, painted blue and green, with upholstered seat pads.

Now, she’s started running workshops. “I live on a big farm and my husband is the farmer, so we built a large shed at the back of the house where I can run the workshops. I think that upcycling is going to get bigger and bigger.” She’s also contemplating starting another company to import Polish transfers to use on upcycled furniture. “I’m not cutting so much hair these days.”

Marianne Heaphy launched her upcycling business, The Revamp Tramp, in 2015. “I think I’d been doing upcycling for a long time without knowing it was upcycling,” she says. “I was always trying to repurpose something into something else.”

Marianne Heaphy from the The Revamp Tramp, an upcycling business which also runs workshops
Marianne Heaphy from the The Revamp Tramp, an upcycling business which also runs workshops

Although she still upcycles and sells furniture, and accepts commissions, her mission in life is to empower people to re-use their own furniture instead of replacing it. She now runs workshops in Waterford, where she is based, and in Wexford, Kilkenny and Dublin.

Typically, the workshops would run for a day and cost between €90 and €100. “I provide all the upcycling materials and I have people bring in a small piece of furniture — the rule is that you have to be able to carry it yourself — and I show them how to upcycle it. I start off by telling them that grey and white are banned from the workshop. That gives them a fright, but they come round after a while.”

Upcycled furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint
Upcycled furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint

While Heaphy is delighted with the trend for upcycling, she worries that the movement will lose its meaning as it becomes more fashionable and upmarket.

“People are seeing so much fancy stuff that they think that upcycling is not for them. I don’t want to see that it’s all gone so expensive that people are being left out.

"Upcycling isn’t about what you can do to furniture, it should be a better and cheaper alternative to buying something new. That’s just as important for the person who wants to paint the TV stand in a different colour.”

See agnessvintageredesigns.company.site, refunkupcycling.com, therevamptramp.ie, @alteredandeclectic, rediscoverycentre.i

Source: independant.ie