House & Home

From Practical to Whimsical, Upcycling Is Totally Fun

Posted September 4, 2013

Sometimes, an item reaches the end of its natural life. It just plain won't do what you need it to do anymore. But has it really hit the end of the road? Recyclers and upcyclers would say: "heck, no!" Instead, it's time for a new career, and that's what creative people are doing all over the world as they turn damaged, tired, stained, or just plain boring items into utterly new things.

On occasion it seems like the upcycling trend is more about coming up with junky craft projects than anything actually useful, or anything that would actually count as art. Sometimes I look at projects and ask myself why people would want to generate even more garbage in the name of preventing waste. Other times, though, I'm rather tickled by what people have managed to do with things that other people think of as garbage; how garden junk, for example, can become a fantastic addition to landscaping.

I took a look today at some upcycling projects from around the world after getting inspired by this feature on Treehugger about creative seating in Hong Kong and China. In these regions, people are often eager to recycle, especially when they're on the lower end of the income scale and they can't afford to buy something new. Thus, a variety of rather amazing things are used for making seating, including parts of worn old seats, precarious-looking repaired chairs, and more.

I was struck by the way in which each chair managed a practical and functional reuse of items that might have otherwise been discarded. Some of these chairs are even strikingly beautiful in addition to functional, achieving that awesome marriage of form and function that so many people treasure. It's exactly the kind of upcycling I like, because the focus is on finding a concrete use for something.

Upcycling doesn't have to be limited to furniture, either. Many remodeling firms work with repurposed, salvaged, recycled, and recovered materials in construction. It's possible to build a large portion of a house from entirely upcycled components, and this isn't something new! My house, built in 1973, is made almost entirely from recycled wood, windows, and flooring. Expanding your mind when it comes to building materials can result in something truly unique and amazing. A Minneapolis tile contractor, for example, might use recycled and reject tile to create a stunning floor or mosaic that's unique to your home.

On the other end of the spectrum, Spanish artist Francisco de Pájaro has a fresh take on garbage. Starting as a street artist, he took trash and turned it into monsters, creating a social and political commentary in addition to adding a note of whimsy and quirkiness to the city. His work in the streets has a raw, authentic, hurried feel because he was forced to move fast in his attempts to avoid police. Now that he's exhibiting in London galleries with more time to assemble his projects, their nature is shifting a bit, but the fundamental ethos remains the same.

These projects are the polar opposite of Hong Kong's cannily-assembled chairs, representing the arts and crafts side of upcycling things that other people are throwing away. Yet, it's still visually striking and oddly compelling. There's something about it that brings a smile to my face even though it doesn't have any real function, showing that de Pájaro has tapped into something important in the human psyche and consciousness. We humans crave and love art, and we're aware also that it takes a variety of forms.

While these creations might not be to everyone's tastes, they are definitely a legitimate form of art, and they're certainly compelling and interesting to look at. Their cheeky, sharp expressions also say a lot about how we think about garbage: don't be so quick to throw things away, they seem to comment, because you never know what could rise from a dumpster!

Katie Marks writes for

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