Even more beautiful the second time around

From fashion to art, design to interior decorating, upcycling is giving new lease on life to objects that have outlived their usefulness – and producing some surprising creations.

Works of art manufactured from old toys, designer dresses crafted from plastic bags, furniture constructed from crates found in the street – all of these are examples of upcycling: the appropriation and re-use of existing objects and waste by a variety of methods.

Recycling up, not down, by producing objects that are even more beautiful in their new incarnation than they were to start with.

Although the concept has been around a long time, the term was coined in the mid-1990s by Reiner Pilz, then adopted in 2002 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The idea is simple: transforming a material or object that’s no longer being used into a more valuable or even luxurious product. Recycling up, not down, by producing objects that are even more beautiful in their new incarnation than they were to start with. The resulting upcycled works are unique, poetic pieces that are often met with astonishment.

These days, upcycling is everywhere: in day-to-day objects and accessories as well as in contemporary design, fashion and art. For some, it’s simply a trend, while for others it’s a philosophy that reflects a true commitment to the environment. But everyone agrees it’s a new way to create and produce.

Upcycling in Design

One of the best known examples of upcycling in interior design is probably the Navy chair from Emeco, created in 1944: it is made from 100% aluminum, including 80% recycled aluminum. In 2010 Emeco introduced a 60% recycled plastic version made from 111 Coca-Cola bottles. Some of today’s designers choose to work only with recovered materials.

Upcycling in Fashion

Salvatore Ferragamo was one of the first to use recycled materials: he created shoes made out of candy wrappers back in the 1940s. In 2009, Hermès introduced Petit h and used waste materials from its workshops to make decorative animals, dishes, jewelry and more: what Hermès calls Unidentified Poetic Objects. Today, the majority of designers who practice upcycling recover leather and fabric scraps from cutting and sewing work to create new pieces of patchwork. One of the leaders of this movement is Orsola de Castro.
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