by Faith Eckersall
Everything from ammunition boxes, to wooden shoe-lasts, to warehouse carts to mechanic’s benches are being snapped up, cleaned up and given a new lease of life in our homes. We’re using them for storage, decoration and, despite their distinctly unglamorous origin, re-purposed as furniture.
Why? According to Caroline Cass, who with her husband, Steven, runs Bubbledrum - an online store specialising in re-purposed homewares, there are several good reasons why we have fallen in love with these items.
“They appeal to us on so many levels,” she says. “They tap into our love of vintage; things that remind us of our past. They look good, they are extremely hardwearing -- what could be tougher than something built to withstand daily life in a factory or mechanic’s workshop? - and they are ecologically sound. Customers like the idea that they can re-use something that in the past would have been thrown away.”
It helps, of course, if you can clearly envisage just what you could use that old bobbin or factory casting belt for and Caroline’s love of the unusual started very young. “My parents are French and we lived in Paris round the corner from the famous Marché aux Puces flea market so we were always going round looking for amazing finds and different objects,” she says.
After meeting and marrying Steven they started visiting the car boots and vintage markets in the UK and France looking for unusual items for their home and the business they decided to launch when their property was completed. “I was working in TV production management but stopped last year to concentrate on sourcing stock for the business,” she says.
Industrial chic evolved from the penchant for loft-style living that sprang out of New York more than two decades ago, where exposed brickwork, planking floors and iron supports were an essential part of the look. But the look has now inspired an industry in itself, complete with utility textiles, such as mattress ticking and hopsack cushions. The prestigious Andrew Martin company recently gave its seal of approval by launching its stunning Engineer wallpaper collection, featuring lifelike industrial designs, including Atlantis (a cement coloured brick pattern) and Palmer, which resembles corrugated iron.
Most of the customers at Bubbledrum and Britain’s other purveyors of the industrial look do not live in lofts, of course. But, says Caroline Cass; “They use it in different ways. Designers love the idea of mixing hard metals with contemporary textiles. Older people may perhaps buy a vintage wooden school-desk for their grandchild because it evokes happy memories for them, of when they used one. Parents seem to appreciate the durability of so many industrial items which they know will stand up to the wear and tear of family life.”
But retro industrial pieces have another trick, too. “They are extremely well-designed,” says Caroline. “They had to save space and be durable and were supposed to be pleasing on the eye and that, together with their sheer plainness, makes them easy to mix in with more decorative things.”
Bubbledrum has designed offices for clients where they’ve incorporated old swivel chairs and factory crates for storage. “They all fit together and take up less space,” says Caroline. Kitchens are another popular place for retro and rescued industrial pieces. Vintage design queen Pearl Lowe is blazing a trail with her use of an old, metal-topped workman’s bench from Arcadia Antiques and a set of engineer’s shelves from Pedlar’s in her kitchen.
Bubbledrum’s ever-changing stock has included old milk bottles: “They have beautiful writing on them,” vintage Pepsi and Canada Dry crates; “People use them for herb gardens,” and old laboratory clamp-stands. “Some still retain their glass flasks and you can either put flowers in them or put a candle in the clamp and angle how you want,” explains Caroline.
It’s very inventive but compared to the re-purposing of old industrial wares across the pond in America, it looks like Britain has a long way to go. Aluminium drive wheels, iron valve handles, even bright, painted machinery gear-wheels are being sold as home decor by the ebullient Ergstore.com, which appears to have made it its mission to persuade us all that industrial antiques are the furniture of the future.
Mark and Judy Cooke of Indiana started the online business in 1997 and have watched as interest in industrial chic rockets. Their premise? “Rust is too cool to waste.” Almost nothing is too old, too hard or too industrial to be ignored in their world. From a gas station motor oil stand, to a galvanised turbine roof vent, they must have saved literally thousands of tonnes of metal that would have ended up in the ground, and that is perhaps one of the chief attractions of industrial chic -- it cuts your carbon footprint.
The mission to recycle is what drives many of those who sell the industrial look, whether it’s the artist Rory Dobner and his Rule the Roost lampshades, made out of old wooden and plastic rulers. Or Retrouvius of London, which proudly displays on its website the stylish re-use by a customer of the exquisite fossil limestone flooring reclaimed from the concourse at Heathrow which was originally laid in 1955. Meanwhile Pedlars is doing a roaring trade in former London bus destination signs, and London antiques emporium The Old Cinema is knocking out old filing cabinets, plan chests, engineering benches and Belgian pate moulds to its adoring customers.
Caroline Cass admits: “It can be addictive. Once you get into industrial style you can hardly stop. We are always on the lookout for it, when we were at the garage for our car we got really interested in an old oil sign they had on the wall. But I love the way it forces you to use your imagination. You start looking at something quite ordinary and start wondering ‘what could I use that for?’.”