Nostalgia but not as we know it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2012, 12:00am


'You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one,' John Lennon wrote. While the late Beatle was famous for his imaginings, daydreaming designers are starting to make a name for themselves by 'reimagining' old junk as designer homewares.

Spurred by the recycling drive, reimagining is an interior design trend that is quickly gaining momentum. And it's not just about saving a few items from landfill, explains South African designer Katie Thompson, founder of Recreate (, a design business that turns old suitcases into sofas and chairs, vacuum cleaners into lamps, golf clubs into towel rails, and more. Some people just can't bear to throw away treasured items, the 30-year-old Cape Town-based designer says. With a bit of reinvention, it's possible to keep loving meaningful relics, and justify hanging on to them.

The idea dawned in February 2009 when Thompson, then a newly minted designer, decided to start her own interior design business. She wondered what role her love of 'junk' could play in the venture. Overnight the penny dropped, and Recreate was born - more from nostalgia than environmental concern.

'I really don't see myself as a deep-thinking, go-green peacemaking hippy,' Thompson says. 'I'm very straightforward: I just love junk. I am a collector, bordering on being a hoarder, with a very large imagination. What started as a small business idea to recreate junk into high-end, beautiful interior design pieces has snowballed and now I try to repurpose everything I lay my eyes on.'

In line with her notion that nothing must be thrown away, even broken or discarded items are granted new life in Thompson's hands. That old manual typewriter? Now a table lamp. Bulky old suitcase? A quirky what-not or one-of-a-kind chair.

An old metal laundry tub can be a sumptuously upholstered ottoman. Outdated kitchen scales become curious mantle clocks. Porthole windows can be coffee tables. And if you don't believe a teacup can really be a candelabra, a fishing basket a vase, or a garden sieve a pinboard, check out the products on her website. Such recreations do not come cheap. An average suitcase chair is Euro800 (HK$8,045) and a typewriter lamp Euro265, plus shipping from Cape Town. 'I am a perfectionist,' Thompson says. 'So although my original items start with a piece of junk, they are always combined with beautifully crafted finishes.'

Hong Kong clients can commission via the website and can provide their own item. So, if you can't bear to part with that old suitcase trunk, now you know what to do with it.

Belgian designer Maarten De Ceulaer ( and hopes people will 'daydream a little' with his reimaginings of a desk made out of briefcases, or a wardrobe from suitcases. Unlike Thompson's work, his pieces weren't junk to begin with, but handmade by him for the purpose. 'With these pieces, I've tried to express my desire to travel the world,' he says. 'They evoke luxurious and sophisticated atmospheres, but at the same time they carry the dynamic vibe of modern nomads who travel through cities and continents without restrictions or boundaries. These pieces are completely functional, although they are also meant to stir people's fantasy [and] make them daydream a little bit once in a while.'

Hong Kong has 'reimaginers' of its own: local designer Douglas Young, founder of lifestyle brand G.O.D. (, and Nicole Wakley, London-born lawyer-turned-designer, who founded the TREE ( eco-chic furniture boutique, in 2005.

Young has been daydreaming since he was little. Reinventing iconic items, especially when it means preserving Hong Kong's heritage, comes naturally to him. He sees the current trend as a progression of the vintage look in fashion, entwined with ecological issues.

'To transform waste into something that is useful and of value is relevant to society's needs,' Young says, particularly in Hong Kong, where the question of what to do with our heritage buildings is a conscience-rattler.

Young's view is that we shouldn't just preserve buildings and icons 'in a freeze-dried state'. 'I believe we should inject new uses so they are reborn to serve new functions. The result would be both new and old. My 'funky furnishings' are like miniature pieces of transformed architecture.'

Our city has many things unique to Hong Kong that we take for granted, Young continues. 'To turn something ordinary into the extraordinary is what I consider to be an essential skill of a designer or artist.'

Young has turned window frames into tabletops, a bunk bed into a sofa, a hairdresser's chair into an armchair, old luggage into kitchen stools, and red rooster bowls into a lamp, all mostly salvaged from junk yards.

Young enjoys giving discarded items modern twists and seeing people's reactions when the familiar becomes the unexpected. Most of these pieces are made to order; G.O.D. also takes private commissions.

TREE has gained a reputation for 'reloving' cherished items, such as the abandoned dragon boat it 'rescued' last year from a Discovery Bay beach and turned into a limitededition collection of reclaimed teak wood pieces, and the Ferum collection, created out of old Indonesian fishing boats. Wakley calls the process of turning old items into something new 'upcycling'.

'Upcycling is arguably an even greener way of recycling by finding a new purpose for something that would otherwise be considered trash. It's all about taking something disposable and creating something useful from them,' she says.

Designers see this as fun and another means of being creative, as well as doing the right thing in an increasingly eco-conscious society, Wakley says.

'The feeling of achievement of turning something once considered trash into a new treasure is an attractive idea that speaks to the innovative and creative mind and can be very rewarding. Combined with the ecological and cost-effective aspects, you'd certainly think, 'Why not?''

Given the amount of rubbish being dumped in landfills and a desire to preserve earth's limited resources, the concept of reinventing old things for household use 'seems to synchronise perfectly'. 'I believe we are all looking for ways to make our homes unique, expressing our individuality and personalities, while telling a story,' Wakley says.

'There is a strong nostalgic notion that probably speaks to our own human nature of wanting to preserve things we love or seeing something old or unattractive become something beautiful.

'We've heard such stories since we were children and retell them to our own kids - the ugly duckling into the swan, the frog into a prince, Cinderella into a princess.'