One person that I suspect we in the UK have all become more familiar with during these long weeks of shutdown is Jay Blades. In addition to his role in The Repair Shop, where broken, damaged or just plain worn out items of sentimental value are restored beautifully by a team of very skilled craftsmen, he has become the ‘go to’ presenter for any show that features old and damaged goods being ‘up-cycled’ to create new ‘stylish’ items of ‘utility and beauty’ – or tat as it is more commonly known. In Money for Nothing goods are uplifted as they are about to be disposed of at the refuse disposal site and recycled by expert craftsmen and designers at horrendous cost, into pieces that are the visual equivalent of sandpaper on the teeth. Beautiful old sideboards are up-cycled into asymmetrical, hand-painted book stands that retain nothing from the original but two pieces of veneer, a box-wood frame and a single rusted screw that was just possibly forged by hand (or sold by Woolworths in 1963); a single old bicycle wheel has a cheap quartz clock movement blue-tacked to it to create ‘an elegant and functional wall ornament‘. Or, as we like to call it, a bike wheel with a clock on. The items seem to be always bought by modish metropolitan ‘galleries’, where they will doubtless languish for many years having already earned their keep by having got the premises on the telly in the first place. I am always reminded of Harry Enfield’s I Saw You Coming sketches. I imagine that they will eventually wind up in some Edina Monsoon wannabe’s lounge, pushed up against the wall to disguise the fact that the luminous paint is peeling off and one of the legs is propped up on a brick.
Furthermore, I have, today, caught sight of a show called Home Fix in which Jay invites people to attempt to achieve the same kind of results by employing their own DIY up-cycling skills. The finished articles do appear quite similar, in an unfinished kind of a way, and they look as if they may well add interest to the home – chiefly, I suspect, in the way of waiting to see how long it takes them to fall to pieces and decapitate the cat. Most of what is made appears to involves pallets – which are often found on the side of the road and which provide free wood for anyone prepared to pay the several hundreds of pounds required to get their car fixed after they have attempted them to load them in. I imagine the joy of knowing that the wood used to make your new coffee table was completely free, more than compensates for the fact that the grandchildren wind up at A&E having six inch splinters removed from their tiny little paws every time they have been round to yours. Today, having created a key holder out of an unfinished old piece of Conti board and two hooks, Jay advised that anyone worried about using a drill could simply use glue instead. So, no worry about it falling to pieces and crashing down onto little Johnny’s foot like a melamine guillotine then? I can’t help feeling that if you can’t drill a piece of wood, then you really shouldn’t be hanging heavy stuff on the walls.
Now don’t get me wrong here; I am in no way opposed to the idea of ‘up-cycling’. I’ve been doing it for years. I have recovered, painted and repaired more junk than the dump can hold. It is undeniably a good thing. My problem comes along with the arrogance that says, we have taken this old chair, we have covered the old seat in an artisan dish cloth and painted the frame with bright yellow paint at a cost far in excess of buying a new one, but look, it is no longer a tarted up old seat, it is a ‘super-modern, designer centre-piece’. IT IS NOT! Painting an old piece of furniture can certainly make it look better, but it cannot fundamentally change what it is, any more than oiling my bike chain will turn it into a Ferrari or getting a decent haircut will turn me into Brad Pitt. A pig in a saddle does not become a racehorse – even if you put a screw through its wonky leg.
If, for instance, you have an old garden bench that has rotted over the winter then ‘doing it up’ can only be a good thing, but it will still remain a tarted-up garden bench. First, you remove all the old rotten wood. (If it is a wooden bench and it is all rotten, do not worry, with a little thought you could always create a truly stylish garden bonfire.) Then replace the rotten wood with new pieces either a) cut from your latest pallet find or b) if you want to avoid ripping your trousers every time you sit on it, the wood merchants, and fasten to the frame with suitable screws. If you have no suitable screws, use whatever is available: unsuitable screws, nails, Blue Tack or twine – It doesn’t matter, once taken apart, these things never go back together properly again and anyway, nobody will ever go anywhere near it after you have sprayed it with creosote. If you are ambitious enough, you may attempt to paint it instead. If you do, it pays to make certain that you prop the bench up on three sides to prevent it falling over and removing your toe-nail when you lean on it. When bench legs are of uneven length, always nail something to the shortest. Do not attempt to shorten the longest: after 37 attempts with the bread knife you will be left with a sledge. Although, that could, of course, be a truly stylish addition to your garden – if only you could find that tin of yellow paint…
Art is art, isn’t it? And water is water and east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like apple-sauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does – Groucho Marx