Upcycling: When one’s trash is another’s treasure

Style names of Fridgecouches indicate which luxury car the seat was rescued from — in this case, a BMW 735i. — Photo courtesy of AJ Johnson

Old refrigerators to new sofas

Adrian (A.J.) Johnson, who commutes to the Vineyard from New Bedford, was inspired to start his small business when he came up with a creative solution for a need in his own life. While searching for a couch appropriate for an outdoor event, Mr. Johnson stumbled across an old BMW with a pristine red leather back seat at a junk lot. As a designer, with an eye for contemporary style, the question of how to mount the seat was solved when, as he says on his website, “My mind raced with visions of vintage modern classics, sleek lines, simple beauty…”

And, so, the Fridgecouch was born.

Designated by a combination of the style names of its components (the 325e Frost Clear in the case of the original model), the stylish and comfortable couches incorporate all leather seats from German luxury cars and the enameled metal housings from 1970s and 80s colorful refrigerators and other fridge elements like side tray tables made from color coordinated doors. The highly streamlined designs feature wooden legs and other polished wood components and spotlight appliance details like raised metal product numbers and panels with dials. Combining sleek classic car upholstery and vintage designer colors like avocado, tangerine and harvest gold, gives each piece a distinctive retro-meets-modern look.

The response to the initial piece encouraged Mr. Johnson to create a small business. So far he has only made five Fridgecouches. There’s one in a bar in New York City, one in Canada, one in a private home in Tokyo, one with an auction house in North Carolina and one in a gallery in New Bedford.

A former professional snowboarder from Canada, Mr. Johnson works on-Island as a design associate for Sullivan O’Connor Architects. He has a degree in Computer Integrated Design from a school in Canada and has done carpentry and other trade work for years. (Mr. Johnson is currently rehabbing an old schoolhouse that he recently purchased in Fairhaven for his future home.)

“I’m very much inclined toward building and fixing things,” says Mr. Johnson, “It runs in my family. I find I need an outlet for the energy I have to do that sort of stuff creatively and mechanically.”

While he doesn’t expect to save the planet one old fridge at time, Mr. Johnson hopes that his designs will make an impact all the same. “It’s really meant to communicate a message about reuses and handmade recyclables. It’s done more as a statement piece to make people think about use and reuse.

“My initial motivation revolved around personal frustration with how products are made with very little consideration for sustainability or responsibility for what’s being used and how efficient it is.

“Here’s something totally unexpected,” he said. “Anything can be reused. When you add creativity and design and thinking we can do things in a more efficient way.”

“Initially it was just a fun concept to make a couch out of essentially garbage. Once I made it, the attention I got from it and the energy that welled up around the whole thing really attracted me to keep with it.”

“When people say, ‘Wow – that’s a recycled fridge,’ it makes people think about upcycling.”

Fridgecouch; fridgecouch.com

Old wood to new furniture

“What’s the use of a fine home if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” reads a Henry David Thoreau quote placed prominently on the website for Laura Silber’s business. The West Tisbury resident owns and operates Demolition Revival Furniture and the quote is an appropriate one for someone who creates fine furnishings from the scrap that that would otherwise end up in landfills. “If you’re destroying the planet while making something beautiful, to me that’s a basic contradiction,” says the full time furniture maker.

Ms. Silber creates one of a kind pieces using lumber that she has salvaged from job sites. She supplements this scrap by having wood from Island trees felled to clear land (or lost to storm damage) processed at a local mill. Hardware fixtures for her unique pieces are also reclaimed and, often times, repurposed – a tub drain plate becomes a door handle, an iron grate or tin roof panel is reborn as a cabinet door. Every piece is made with at least 90% recycled materials.

“There are so many demolition and renovation jobs where so much goes into the dumpster every day,” says Ms. Silber, “I’ve collected stuff – flooring, panelling, trim – and stockpiled it.” Due to her ongoing relationships with local contractors, Ms. Silber has an impressive, well organized collection to choose from. “I know by looking at it where it all came from,” says Ms. Silber, “Every piece of wood has its own story.”

The origins of Ms. Silber’s business prove the maxim, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When she was in the process of building a home on a budget ten years ago, the handy Ms. Silber used whatever she could secure from construction sites for much of the interior materials.

When the house was done, Ms Silber says, “I had very little money left for furniture.” However, what she did have was a lot of left over scrap wood and a penchant for recycling. Her first recycled piece, a bookcase, was met with such enthusiastic praise that she started constructing salvage pieces for friends. Ms. Silber eventually gave up her day job as a chef and launched Demolition Revival Furniture. She has been showing her work at the Vineyard Artisans Festival for about ten years now. She offers small completed pieces like mirrors and medicine cabinets and exhibits samples of her larger custom made pieces for which she takes commissions.

“I feel it’s important for artists and artisans and builders to use the old stuff,” says Ms. Silber, “You can’t reproduce the look of old wood.” She uses only raw (unpainted) wood. Ms. Silber has discovered that the local wood she collects from landscapers is also unique. “I get elm, oak, sassafras. Some of it is gorgeous and really unusual.”

With an eye for unique solutions, Ms. Silber has found a couple of great off-Island resources for the metal hardware she uses for functional (i.e. draw pulls) or decorative purposes — many of her pieces are embellished with chains, cast iron grills or things such as antique sewing machine components.

Ms. Silber does mostly custom work ranging from simple hutches to a huge elaborate entertainment center with multiple cabinets, lots of decorative elements and two “birdhouse” towers. Much of her work features color — often multiple colors — but she has also started featuring pieces with a country whitewash look. Ms. Silber uses only non toxic products (paint, polyurethane and beeswax polish) and has her paint colors custom mixed.

The range of styles and personal taste among her clientele has dictated Ms. Silber’s wide variety of designs. “I have customers who want rustic and others who go with more of a gothic look. It goes from really contemporary to really traditional and everything in between. From collectors to people who have never bought a piece of custom furniture in their life, it really runs the gamut.” She gets a lot of repeat customers and referrals from local interior designers.

Ms. Silber works with her custom clients to create a design based on the colors and look of the space where the piece will be featured, as well as the personal style of the customer. “We always start with the function of the piece,” she says. “Once function and dimensions are in place, we work on the visual aspect. People are alway happy to give me a little wiggle room for the visual part.”

Equal parts artist and artisan, Ms. Silber has passed down her skills and creativity to her son Isaac. Following up on his mother’s multiple first prizes at the Ag Fair, the eight-year-old won a blue ribbon last year for a wooden rocket ship model that’s big enough to hold a kid or two.It seems there’s no end to the possibilities found in what others have discarded, and Ms. Silber is not one to waste anything. “I have very little left over,” she says. “For somebody who does construction and fabrication, I only go to the dump twice a year. Most of the scrap wood I can burn for kindling.”

Demolition Revival Furniture; demolitionrevival.com; info@demolitionrevival.com; (508)696-8475