Liz Bauwens and Alexandra Campbell explain how to see old things in a new light Upcycling and hacking are two new and important words in today’s decorating dictionary. ‘Upcycling’ is giving an item a new lease of life by using it in a different context or turning it into something else. Redundant pieces of industrial furniture, from dentists’ cabinets to office chairs, can take on a new role in the home, while discarded CDs or blancmange moulds can be made into lampshades, and old floorboards into kitchen units. Meanwhile, in the upcycled garden, drainpipes or old boots become original planters.

‘Hacking’ is transforming an ordinary piece into something special. This could be done by making the legs longer on a basic high-street kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom unit, or changing the top, the handles, or the doors. You could paint it, strip it, glaze it, or cover it in fabric, even giftwrap.

By upcycling and hacking, it’s possible to create a designer look at a value-for-money price. But it’s not just a question of saving money – it’s about making your home look different and giving it personality. It also concerns craftsmanship, reusing materials that would otherwise have been discarded, or discovering techniques that would otherwise be lost. Before industrialisation, nothing was wasted.

So what do you need to know to upcycle or hack? If you love rummaging, that’s the perfect starting point. Search, and keep searching. Look in high-street stores and junk shops for inexpensive items. Then browse in smart stores, and flick through magazines or books for inspiration.

Upcycling and hacking undoubtedly saves money, but don’t overlook the extra costs you may incur. You may have to pay for professional repairs or alterations. Although it can still be cheaper to get a carpenter to adapt a high-street unit than to commission a new one, you shouldn’t expect to pay next to nothing for the work. Re-covering a chair or sofa will also entail the cost of the fabric, plus the professional upholstery expertise, which could run into many hours’ worth of time.

Image above: Industrial salvage often needs work before it’s ready for a new role in the home. This pretty table is the bottom half of an agricultural chaff-cutter, once used on a farm at harvest time. The kitchen’s owner removed the top half of the machinery and added the tabletop. Behind is a set of shelves that started life in a Victorian clothing store. The metal stand holding pots and pans is a 1940s engineer’s stand from a foundry. On the top sits an old industrial bread mould, which now holds knives, forks and spoons

Industrial chic

There is a growing interest in upcycling salvaged retail or industrial furniture or fittings, and repurposing them for domestic use. The internet is the starting place for hunting down industrial and retail salvage. Use search terms such as ‘vintage industrial’ and ‘vintage shop fittings’.

The kitchen (above) belongs to Mark Rochester, whose company, Rochesters in Yorkshire, upcycles industrial and salvaged materials into furniture. Apart from the present-day tiles, stove and refrigerator, everything has come from a 19th- or 20th-century factory, farm, store or café. The large sink with its swirly sides, however, was found buried in a nearby wood.

Living room with tartan upholstered sofa
Traditional carpet patterns, checks and a yellow-painted old cricket table look fresh and contemporary against a plain background. Re-covering cushions is relatively cheap and easy, compared to reupholstering an entire sofa. The coffee table is made up of the base of an old laundry cart and a wooden fruit crate

Upcycling pattern

Many patterns – checks, tartans, paisleys and florals – have been produced for hundreds of years, while traditional Persian rug designs date as far back as 500BC. So how do we use these styles and patterns in a fresh, contemporary way?

This living room (above) belongs to Norfolk artist Lucy Dickens. Using her eye for colour, she has transformed old furniture and boxes to create a delightful living room brimming with character.

The best way to use traditional pattern without it looking dated is to mix things up. Combine pattern with plain, antique with contemporary. For example, if you have an antique Persian rug with a beautiful, elaborate pattern, show it off against plain white walls. Painting a traditional piece of furniture in a bright, modern colour also works well, as with Lucy’s yellow table.

She used an old checked coat to re-cover the seat cushions on the secondhand sofa, which has helped to prolong the sofa’s life. Fire-retardant sprays are available for most fabrics, but check fire regulations before embarking on such a project.

Bedroom with blue colour
An English Victorian cast-iron bed is covered with a traditional blue-and-white Welsh blanket – plaids and checks are the most common pattern for Welsh blankets, but you can also find tapestry designs. Look for blankets made from real wool

Keeping it simple

Simplicity works beautifully with upcycling and recycling. A room with white walls and a restrained use of colour really shows off the shape, patina and texture of vintage objects. It’s the difference between cluttered and contemporary.

The most decorative piece of furniture in the bedroom (above) is the blue painted chair from Eastern Europe, featuring a sweet little folk-art emblem on the seat back. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been increasing interest in traditional folk art and painted furniture from countries formerly part of the Soviet bloc. There are dealers in the UK, US and Europe who specialise in such furniture. You can, of course, travel there and do the buying yourself, although you may find it difficult to find authentic folk designs – fleamarkets in the bigger cities are now mainly aimed at tourists. However, you can still pick up delightful pieces in the countryside at very reasonable prices.

The use of colour in upcycling and hacking is important because it can pull everything together. An upcycled interior will usually include pieces from lots of different eras – Victorian, 1920s, 1970s and the present day, for example. Using a limited colour palette makes the effect crisp and contemporary rather than muddled.

Bathroom with patchwork tiling
Patchwork tiling can be very attractive – and you don’t necessarily have to use all the same sort of tiles. Mix a few expensive favourites in among more standard ones, or edge a design of basic tiles with those that are more special. For a large area, such as a shower, cheaper tiles could be used for the wall, while more expensive ones can be reserved for something smaller, such as a basin splashback

Bathroom hacks

If you want to upcycle or hack a regular bathroom, then changing the tiling or flooring is often the cheapest way of creating impact. These pictures of London-based actress Joanne McQuinn’s shower room show pretty, colourful tiles adorning both the basin splashback and the floor.

If you’re tiling only a small area, then you might decide to invest in a few expensive tiles. It can be worth checking in tile stores for end-of-line styles, which are often available at highly discounted prices. You can take the same approach with other expensive floorings, such as luxury vinyl or carpet. Some tiles wear better on floors than others; for example, porcelain and cement tiles are more water-resistant than ceramic or marble designs, and so are considered better choices for bathroom flooring.

Upcycled Chic and Modern Hacks bookRead the book

This is an edited extract from Upcycled Chic and Modern Hacks by Liz Bauwens and Alexandra Campbell, with photographs by Simon Brown (£19.99, Cico Books)