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Things Are Looking Up

Hollie Davis and Andrew Richmond | May 12th, 2013

The Young Collector

 We’ve pretty much given up complaining about wanting to talk to real people, haven’t we? After lots of complaining in the 1990’s about the growing numbers of “Push one for…” phone systems, we’ve just sighed and gone on about our business. The Internet, most would say, has only made it worse and increased the disconnection we feel with people. Those people, we would say, need to discover Etsy.com.

Etsy is a site for crafters and for artisans—and these days, for folks selling antiques. People of all skill levels and interests can make what they make best and offer it for sale. (What they make “best” can be questionable, hence the advent of the site Regretsy.com, where some of the most frightening creations are archived.) Painters, potters, sculptors, weavers—they’re all offering up their wares on Etsy. Most of them are thrilled with the opportunity to offer a personal experience.

We’ve had great success, from the ceramic shade pulls we’ve purchased for our eight windows (“let me make you a prototype and send it to you, just to make sure it’s not too big and that you really like the color”) to the quilt top we purchased for Nora’s bed (the seller had misplaced the one from her listing, so she quickly made another one, which was to the exact dimensions we wanted anyway, and tucked a little stuffed pig in the pocket, which she’d sewn on just for Nora). E-mails flew back and forth, as we shared little bits about our lives and just got to know each other. It was the best sales experience we’ve had in ages.

Nora’s quilt top in particular typifies a great deal of the material offered on Etsy. It’s a new class of material in the antiques marketplace—upcycled objects. We were looking for something durable and versatile, something that would hold up for the numerous washings of years to come, and nothing seemed stronger and less likely to stain or fall apart than denim. We weren’t interested in spending hundreds of dollars for a bedspread that’s going to probably be awash in any number of bodily fluids over the next few years. It also goes against our personal sense of ecology to just buy something new and cheap and “chemical-y,” as Nora says, from China, so the top we discovered on Etsy, made of the legs of stacks of thrift store blue jeans, was perfect.

Of course, no one’s apt to care too much about fewer pairs of $2 jeans in the world, but upcycling does create a bit of a stir amongst some of the antiques folk. Of course, the antiques business is no stranger to selling antiques as “recycling.” We’ve been working the green angle for years, and the “Antiques are Green” movement has been distributing logos and stickers for even longer. As a result, we thought this would make a great discussion for the Midwest Antiques Forum panel, but in planning it, we realized that the distinctions between repurposing, recycling, and upcycling were a little hazy. Allow us to share what we’ve learned.

The confusion about all this has to do in part with how the meaning of recycling is changing. At one time, people would have suggested that recycling just meant finding a new way to use something that had lost its purpose. Technically speaking, recycling means to convert waste into reusable materials by breaking the waste down—melting down cans, shredding paper, etc. That’s converting waste—something that as is has virtually no purpose left. To our way of thinking, this generally applies to architectural fragments. For instance, our kitchen counters, which are made from the boards of a 19th-century granary, are recycled.

Removing hardware from a piece that it is no longer feasible to repair or use would also be recycling. Broken china jewelry is a classic example, as a shattered plate is just about the very definition of something that is wasted and without purpose. Recycling happens when the original object has been destroyed or is slated to be destroyed, when it is beyond repair and can only be salvaged for parts.

As far as controversy goes, recycling is rarely problematic except among purists. Few people can argue that one needs to spend the hundreds of dollars necessary to conserve and repair, say, an Adam’s Rose plate with a huge chunk missing, when dozens are available regularly on any ­number of Internet sites. Discomfort with recycling also seems somehow to be in direct proportion to the size of the object being recycled. A plate? Sure, no problem. A high chest case that’s missing three drawer fronts? Well, maybe. A 20th-century bungalow? That’s a real shame! A 19th-century Italianate farmhouse? Now wait a minute!

The reality is that preservation for the sake of preservation is, at least in this economy, unsustainable. Few people who think old buildings shouldn’t be torn down actually want to live in one and shell out for reglazing the windows and dealing with exorbitant heating and cooling costs. When Andrew was giving tours at Winterthur as a student, he would frequently see people shaking their heads and muttering when talk turned to the houses dismantled and retrofitted to the requirements of Henry Francis du Pont’s space and desires. Yet when one sees the photographs of some of the buildings salvaged, it’s clear that having the paneling and molding of a room is at least preferable to the rotting, waterstained, groundhog dwellings they were otherwise destined to become. Recycling requires careful consideration, to be sure, but it’s not inherently evil. Not to mention that, in terms of antiques, recycling sustains the lower end of the market, creating buyers for things that would otherwise be heading to landfills.

Repurposing is also different from recycling and upcycling. Repurposing is using something as it is but for a purpose other than it was intended (thereby saving it from becoming something that needs to be recycled because of obsolescence). While we talk about recycling as an industry, technically speaking, repurposing is where most of what we buy and sell in the antiques world is classified. We have thousands of examples: blanket chests as coffee tables, cutlery trays as remote caddies, sideboards as entertainment centers, etc. Repurposing keeps the middle market alive because aside from a handful of categories, such as tables and chairs, very few antiques can be or are being used as truly originally intended.

With that in mind, repurposing, to us, allows for some minor, but almost entirely reversible, accommodations. There are worse things than gingerly removing a backboard in order to run a cable or adding an interior latch to help keep a toddler from opening a door. For example, we’ve recently removed a door to a food safe because Nora’s toys are in the bottom and she sometimes leaned on it when bending over to pick things up in a way that made us nervous for the hinges. It was easier to get a screwdriver, pop the door off, and store it between the safe and the wall. Our limit (admittedly arbitrary) for this kind of thing is drilling a hole and keeping the plug so it could always be put back in place.

Upcycling goes beyond all of this. Upcycling is taking something that remains essentially intact, but still serviceable, if somewhat common, and completely transforming it into something of higher quality, greater desirability, or better environmental use. People have been doing this for generations with buildings (where you are more likely to hear it called “adaptive reuse”)—think loft apartments in former factory buildings (or one-room schoolhouses as dwellings). And, as is the case with adaptive reuse, upcycling almost always involves fundamental and permanent changes to an object.

There are thousands of examples of this on Etsy alone: converting old doors to headboards and footboards for beds; cutting out the side of an old bathtub to make a dog bed; putting a bathroom sink in the top of an old dresser; or, and this seems to be one that gets some people wound up, cutting up old oil paintings to make bags, purses, and wallets. (Yes, seriously. Stop by our Facebook page to see an album of “Upcycled Stuff.” We’ll also share some thoughts and opinions from the panel discussion.)

While upcycling “destroys” something useful, whereas things recycled are traditionally deemed waste, upcycling is actually less harmful from an environmental standpoint. This is simply because breaking down materials to be recycled requires far more energy. Take the example of an old bathtub, for instance. Restoring it would cost money and be a chemical process, and recycling would require a great deal of heat to melt it down and forge something new, while upcycling involves minimal energy, minimal chemicals, and minimal expenditures. (And it does support the lower and middle segments of the market.) And upcycling is, by the way, moving up! A Google search for repurposing antiques will net you 106,000 pages, recycling antiques gets you 1,230,000, but upcycling antiques gets a whopping 2,650,000 pages.

You’ll not find stauncher preservationists than us, but it’s not possible, not practical, and not affordable to keep every object ever made intact and as it was made to be used. If things are, over time, destined to be damaged or destroyed, why not get some usefulness out of them by whatever means possible—repurposing, recycling, or upcycling. We’ve been looking for ways to create interest, to draw people into the world of antiques, and, who knows, upcycled objects might do just that. An oil painting wallet or a dresser bathroom sink might be just the trendy entry point to a look that will eventually include more upcycled objects and maybe even more antiques.


We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <youngcollectors@maineantiquedigest.com>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectors.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.


Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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