Samantha Coleman talks upcycling with designer, maker and TV expert Nessa Doran O’Reilly of Furniture Magpies
The saying, ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, does not ring more true than with Bristol-based furniture restorer Nessa Doran O’Reilly, who spends her working life finding discarded, broken and pre-loved pieces of furniture and completely transforming them into cool, inspiring designs that wouldn’t look out of place in a rock star’s apartment.
Whether it’s reupholstering a worn chair, turning broken table legs into lamps or giving salvaged drawers a new lease of life as a coffee table, there’s nothing this superwoman can’t rescue.
“I don’t believe in good furniture going to landfill when it can be redesigned into a piece that people can love all over again,” says Nessa. “I‘m passionate about restoring quality furniture – I really appreciate the beauty in the original design and workmanship. And I always think: how could something this lovely be chucked away?”
Having moved to Bristol last year, Nessa now runs an upcycling and restoration business, Furniture Magpies, with her partner Sam, and their workshop is ideally situated in the Old Market area of the city, which is starting to carve a name for itself as an artisan quarter of designer makers.
“Bristol is a great place for creatives to work and also for finding old pieces of furniture and antiques,” says Nessa. “In fact, about 90% of the furniture we work on is donated for free, usually because the surfaces are warped or water damaged, or chairs and tables have timber splits.”
But how does she envisage the potential of a broken piece of furniture? “Well the piece itself inspires the design,” explains Nessa. “Our work strives to retain the character and story of the furniture we use, allowing the user an insight into the item’s original identity. Each design is a recipe and depending on the ingredients, it comes out a little different every time.”
That’s the beauty and fascination of Nessa’s work – it can be a wonderful curiosity in any room. “One of the most popular pieces are the Lovely Legs table lamps, which are made from discarded Windsor chair legs,” she tells us. “Because they are handmade from rescued furniture components, each is totally unique.”
And this is no amateur DIY job; Nessa’s impressive upcycling skills have been honed through years of studying, first in her homeland of Ireland where she trained in furniture design, and then later on in High Wycombe where she completed an MA in design and technology. However, unlike her fellow students, Nessa just couldn’t justify making a career out of designing her own pieces of furniture when she saw that there were so many quality old pieces heading for the scrapheap.
“All around High Wycombe were charity shops chock-a-block with amazing furniture being thrown away,” she remembers. “There were mid-century modern designs made from incredible teak but with a bit of wear and tear, so I started collecting this old furniture and doing it up. As I worked on it, I realised I wanted to know more about restoration and the sorts of finishes that I was dealing with.”
This prompted a return to education for Nessa, to study Conservation and Restoration of Furniture and Decorative Arts, which opened up a whole new aspect of upcycling that changed the way she approached her work from then on.
Now, Nessa is just one of the pioneers of the so-called upcycling revolution, which has been taking the world of interior design and social media by storm. Search for #upcyclerevolution on Twitter and you’ll see what I mean. Hundreds of professional and have-a-go DIY-ers are jumping on the bandwagon and sharing the message that in this increasingly throw-away society, there’s much more that we can be doing to reduce waste – by turning redundant items around our homes into new, exciting pieces.
You’ll find pictures of projects where people have given new life to a worn piece of furniture with a lick of chalk paint and some colourful knobs or decoupage; pallets that have been transformed into cool wine racks or potting shelves for the garden; and unusual bric-a-brac items that have been turned into funky lampshades and decorative art. Even online marketplace giant Gumtree has got on board with the upcycling revolution, enlisting upcycling star Max McMurdo to travel around the country on a workshop bus, offering advice, inspiration and ideas.
But what does upcycling mean, exactly, I hear you ask? Well, Nessa simply says: “It’s about taking a piece of furniture in its current pre-loved state, and making it desirable again.” It’s certainly the buzzword of the moment – and no longer just about thrifty recycling, but creating a piece of unique artwork and design. You may have noticed that there are a lot more home improvement shows on TV at the moment, all about realising the potential of redundant pieces of furniture and homewares knocking around the house. In fact, if you recognise Nessa, it’s probably because you’ve seen her on the recent Channel 4 show, Fill Your House for Free, presented by Gok Wan. Nessa featured as an upcycling expert, alongside fellow gurus Max McMurdo and Jay Blades, helping people to embrace upcycling in the interior design of their homes.
“It was so much fun working on this show,” says Nessa. “Gok is brilliant and has so much positive energy. Everyone I worked with inspired me. Hopefully there will be another series, so watch this space…”
Never one to stop, Nessa has big plans for 2017. Having also recently finished some filming for Phil Spencer’s Perfect Home on All4, Nessa says she would love to get involved in more filming projects and plans to launch her own You Tube channel of online restoration tutorials, as well as write a ‘recipe’ book of projects that people can follow at home. “It would be great to run restoration courses in Bristol, too,” she says. “I definitely think Bristol would be up for it.” Best get a good drill then…
• All the Furniture Magpie pieces are sold via the online shop on the website – furnituremagpies.com – and Nessa and Sam also take private commissions. Follow Nessa on Twitter @furnituremagpie to keep up to date with her latest projects, and check out her 5 Top Tips for upcycling your own furniture here