Cheol Joon Baek
Local upcycling stars take trash to new highs
WHO: Nathalie-Roze Fischer, designer and retailer
WHAT: Nathalie-Roze & Co. (1015 Queen East, 416-792-1699), an indie designer boutique and DIY studio
WHY: Inveterate craftista dedicated to giving new careers to forgotten materials
It was economics that got my mother to upcycle. We emigrated to Canada at the tail end of summer, but soon it was winter and damn cold, as predicted.
My mother had a large red sweater that, before my amazed eyes, she proceeded to unknit. Before too long, that cozy garment had been unravelled to a single long red thread, which she then began to reknit.
Three days later, two small red sweaters had replaced her original one, and my brother and I could go about a little bit more warmly in the cold Canadian wind.
Similar circumstances got Nathalie-Roze Fischer going. "Economics was the original motivation for me as a teenager," she tells me at her store, which is famed for its creative recycling.
"I was always fiddling around making earrings out of telephone wire. It was cheaper for me to find old things and cut them up."
Her economic situation may have improved, but her love of imagining new purposes for discarded things has continued to blossom.
"We currently employ 83 designers, all local except for a couple from Montreal and Vancouver, who are recycling or upcycling vintage fabrics for repurposing." She shows me around the shop. There are metamorphoses here worthy of Ovid.
Redundant rock band T-shirts from the 70s have been shortened, given clip-on fasteners and turned into baby onesies. Old aprons from the 50s with hauntingly familiar designs are now elegant tops. One of her designers specializes in morphing surplus military gear like tents and tarpaulins from Berlin and Japan, acquired on eBay, into impeccable handbags.
Even scratched records gain new functionality as covers for journals. Most delightful for me, though, was finding that old plastic bags could be twirled and woven into new durable fabrics.
If all this summons up images of mouldy second-hand stores, think again. These are chic-looking objects that sell at a good price.
"I think there are a lot of people shopping really consciously now, and they're happy that some things get a reprieve from waste. The fact that people are doing something artistic with them adds a lot of value."
Photo By Cheol Joon Baek
WHO: Martin Scott
WHAT: Forever Interiors (2903 Dundas West, 416-291-2001)
WHY: Dedicated to the art of reincarnating old stuff
My grandfather worked all his life as a carpenter, and just before he died he took the lumber from a bunch of old factory skids and turned it into bookcases and loveseats for everyone in my family.
He used a particular form of construction, with wooden wedges driven through loops of wood that required not a single nail to keep the pieces together.
But it wasn't the labour or the love he put into his parting gifts that touched us so much as the poetry in it. Here was a message to say that the rough used stuff of the world can be uplifted, re-functioned and made beautiful.
Too bad he never met Martin Scott of Forever Interiors, recreator and redesigner of old furniture, wood and other stuff.
"I just don't like to see things get thrown away," he tells me as I browse through the many artifacts he's either saved or repurposed. I love what he's done with reclaimed glass. He gets huge mirrors from apartment buildings being torn down and uses old floorboards to reframe them. They're one of his best sellers.
"I prefer to get things from before 1950, because they're assembled in such a way that they can be taken apart and put back together again and rebuilt. A lot of new things are so junky that basically they were designed to be assembled just once. You cannot take them apart and you can't refinish them. They're just junk."
He has a particular love for the morphology of doors. "When wood is this old, it gets character," he says, showing me a long, graceful coffee table he's been fashioning from several recent acquisitions.
Indeed, he might be dubbed the Midas of doors. Every day he answers the riddle "When is a door not a door?" When it's a cupboard, when it's a desk, when it's a chest of drawers, when you take little fish-shaped pieces of it and get local artists to paint and hang it as art.
I'm halfway suspecting he might have an entire ark made of doors somewhere out back, but it's the gorgeous wooden boxes that really get me. I can't help but think of my grandfather. Again, not because things that would have wound up in landfill have been transfomed into chic and useful things, but because of the sense of poetry in them.
They're not just stylish wooden containers; they're places to keep the ploughshares beaten out of swords, tree-saving boxes of hope and imagination, revisionings not just of a door but of the world we live in.
Photo By Cheol Joon Baek
WHO: Mark Sepic, guitarist
WHAT: Musical instruments made from trash
WHY: To liberate our landfills and heal with new sounds
I've never seen a musician so into the junk.
Mark Sepic takes me out into his eastern Toronto back yard, where he keeps his stash. It's magnificent. Around a treehouse hang the trashy items he likes to party with: bathtubs, bedpans, an auto roof rack, frying pans, discarded aluminum cookers, cutlery, cast-off Weed Wacker wire, fishing line, plumbing pipes and tubing and even some drill core samples from a diamond mining expedition.
Gleefully, he hands me a rubber mallet and urges me to give the bedpan a whack. Arguably, this particular upcycled instrument has known the sound of music even in its original use, but now a discernible E-flat erupts when I apply the mallet.
Soon, Sepic and I are playing the opening to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, the bedpan subbing for Hendrix's low E string. Upcycling cast-off stuff is obviously something that delights this accomplished musician.
It's clear that he does all this for his own pleasure, but he's also managed to infect the school system with his enthusiasm. "I must've recycled 10,000 to 20,000 tin cans over the last 15 to 20 years in schools, making them into drums."
And he's got bigger plans still. "This is basically a model for sustainable city parks stuff. The amazing thing is how beautiful garbage sounds," he tells me as he continues to improvise. He gestures toward his racks of revisioned instruments.
"I've got four octaves of junk," he burbles, indicating a row of suspended aluminum pots.
"People are just throwing them out now, but listen - they sound like church bells." Indeed they do.
"This stuff is good for the world and good for us. When you heal something, you heal yourself."
Robert Priest's new book, Reading The Bible Backwards, will be published by ECW in the fall.