Design Notes Archive

Reclaimed Materials

Reclaimed Materials

September is traditionally the month when what’s new in design takes center stage—and so it will if your eyes are set on the upcoming London Design Festival. But we can’t help but notice the intense enthusiasm surrounding all things old as of late. Cue the applause for, nay frenzy over, the Jasper Conran auction at Christie’s. Conran’s collection of antiques is so vast it’s been broken up into two installments—one assortment going up for live auction on 14 September, the other via an online-only sale culminating on 21 September. If you haven’t done so yet, do order the commemorative catalog, which includes a delightful series of essays and photographs of Conran’s past residences alongside the various lots.

That said, much has been written lately correlating the rising popularity of antiques to covid-induced production delays and Brexit shipping difficulties. But in truth, designers have always known that incorporating secondhand treasures is key to a well-rounded interior. And it goes beyond just furniture and accessories. When it comes to kitchens and bathrooms, reclaimed fixtures and fittings can add instant age and character, not just visually but through the stories that come with their provenance.

Take this kitchen, left, in a Ghent penthouse by designer Jean-Philippe Demeyer. The tiled splash back channels the city high rise buildings just outside the window. But far from modernist, these heavy glazed clay tiles are 1970s, salvaged from a Brussels staircase. “They were inserted in the railings, one tile every 3 steps,” says Demeyer. “I fell in love with them at a salvage yard, not having a particular project in mind. I buy things as a cook buys their ingredients and store them in my warehouse until I feel I can use them.” As a backdrop to sleek yellow cabinetry and furnishings that skew glam, the richly textured installation lends the kitchen a feeling of coziness, as though they’ve always been there.  

Architectural salvage and design firm Retrouvius is widely celebrated for their use of reclaimed materials in design. Co-founder Maria Speake has a particular knack for repurposing things in the cleverest of ways—reusing parquet floors to front cabinetry and pieces of old stone flooring inlaid with tiles from fireplace surrounds as splash backs, for example. Even something as simple as turning a salvaged door handle sideways to become a hand towel rail. Each of these comes with a story, but perhaps none as intriguing as the cupboard doors she installed in this kitchen, centre. Acquired from the Victoria & Albert Museum, they once framed textiles in the archives and their backs are imprinted with texture and stamps from each loan. By installing the panels on the reverse, Speake puts these elements on full display, giving them a new life as part of the room’s story. 

In the bathroom, right, of her new Kensal Green home, she’s experimented with an installation of vintage ceramic soap dishes salvaged from a Belgian factory by her husband, Retrouvius co-founder Adam Hills. “They’re inlaid against the tadelac so you have that harmony of the color and the waterproofness around them,” says Speake. “Where you get a vintage piece inlaid in the new, they both become elevated by each other.”

Using reclaimed materials on a grander scale—as part of the building materials and overall architecture beyond just interior decor—is the next frontier for Retrouvius. To that end, Speake and Hills are using their new house as a sort of proving ground for reclaimed materials both inside and out. “It’s meant to inspire contemporary architects to look at the idea of reuse. Because often when you see salvaged before it’s been re-incorporated it can look quite junky. We’ve tried to show the elements but in a way that modernist architects would like the look of,” says Speake. To point, the home’s exterior is clad in old steel panels with herringbone indentations in them, secured to the building with exposed bolts. “It’s a bit like that wonderful experimental house that Alvar Aalto did, where he had different examples of brickwork that create these rather nice panels on the outside. In a way, that’s what this space is,” says Speake.

If you’re looking to explore reclaimed materials, some of our favourite sources in addition to the treasure trove at Retrouvius, include English Salvage in Leominster, Norfolk Reclamation, Lassco, and Water & Wood for old taps in particular.

Photos: © Belen Imaz, Retrouvius