Household objects, industrial cast-offs and vintage farm tools — all these and more are being salvaged and upcycled into lighting fixtures that range from elegant to funky to pure wow.
The trend is evident at eateries like Malai Marke, a stylish Indian restaurant in New York City’s East Village, where light in the dining room glows from bulbs surrounded by green wine bottles arranged in a circle, empty but corked.
It can be seen on websites like Pinterest, where the “Upcycled Lighting Obsession” board shows bulbs affixed to old skateboards, the metal innards of a box spring, bird cages, teacups and an upside-down colander.
And it’s become a career for Robert Nicholas in Asheville, North Carolina, whose dramatic showpiece chandeliers made from all kinds of vintage objects sell for up to $6,000.
Nicholas’ materials range from the wooden roof of an old gazebo to tobacco stakes, which were used to harvest and dry tobacco leaves and are part of North Carolina’s agricultural history.
The gazebo-turned-chandelier is going to be a showpiece for a local brewery; the tobacco-stakes fixture ended up in Miami.
“You’re taking something that may feel more indigenous to a cabin in North Carolina and you’re putting it in a modern home in South Beach,” Nicholas said.
In fact, many of his fixtures have an urban-chic sensibility despite their authentic rural roots, a style he’s dubbed “modern folk.”
Yet when it comes to an object’s original purpose, Nicholas said, “I don’t really care what it was, but I’m intrigued by what it was. It really is more about the esthetic look of it and the potential of what it can become,” along with its potential for a “wow factor.”
His esthetic has “a modern feel to it but there’s also a primitiveness to it,” he said. “The younger generation, they want the modern feel but they still want to be comfortable.”
His philosophy stems from “seeing value in things we were discarding.”
That’s similar to how Antonia Edwards, author of a book called Upcyclist: Reclaimed and Remade Furniture, Lighting and Interiors (Prestel), defines upcycling: “You take something that is considered redundant and has no value and you are basically transforming it to give it value again. In my case, I’m looking at esthetic value. It doesn’t have to have a certain style particularly; it’s just got to have something interesting about it, then you put it in the right setting and it’s amazing.”
Edwards’ website reflects her philosophy that “you could literally upcycle anything,” from repurposing abandoned buildings to making new clothing from scraps.
But her book focuses on interior decor, including lighting. Two of her favourite lighting designers featured in the book are Alex Randall, whose quirky, theatrical lighting includes lampshades made from vintage dresses with enormous full skirts; and Stuart Haygarth, who Edwards says is known for show-stopping chandeliers, including one made from eyeglasses and lenses where you can’t tell “at first glance that it’s spectacles because it’s looks really luxurious.” Another concept she likes is from a Finnish company, Characters, which makes lights out of individual letters from old neon signs refitted with LED technology.
“Lighting is probably the most important thing in any interior,” she adds. “It’s what sets the ambience.”
Nicholas started his lighting business about 15 years ago “making lamps out of found architectural pieces” like distressed porch balustrades with turned wood and layers of paint. At one point, he was making hundreds of upcycled lamps, selling them wholesale to a furniture market and a retailer. But eventually he got bored with smaller fixtures and now concentrates on larger, unique pieces, which can be seen on his website and in his showroom, Splurge, in Asheville’s River Arts District.
He has a message for those who see an upcycled lighting idea on Pinterest or in a shop and think, “I can do that.”
“Hey, create something that hasn’t been done yet!” Nicholas says. “Don’t copy something else.”