It was only a matter of time before the concept of recycling was itself recycled.
It still involves, of course, the reuse and reprocessing of recovered materials for the greater environmental good. But when designers the world over are recasting old fluorescent light tubes, discarded car parts and even old eyeglasses as high-priced luxury furnishings, calling it recycling just doesn't do the finished products justice. A more accurate description - and the design-world buzz word du jour - is upcycling.
"We are always dumpster diving for materials," says designer Brian Richer of Toronto-based Castor Design, which is well known for its Recycled Tube Lights, striking (and pricey) lighting fixtures made from burned-out fluorescent tubes.
As the term suggests, upcycling isn't merely the use of old metal or reclaimed wood to craft a piece of furniture - something that has been going on for centuries. To upcycle is to take a particularly humble item or material - auto scrap, a plastic milk crate - and rework it through artistry and imagination into a piece of high design.
British designer Stuart Haygarth, for instance, assembles glam chandeliers out of old spectacles and plastic beach debris - and sells them for £10,000 ($18,800) apiece.
Then there are Toronto's Brothers Dressler, who use old wooden lasts they salvaged from a fishing camp in Northern Ontario as unique feet for their Last Dance tables and chairs. (The prices for these items are available on request through http://www.brothersdressler.com.)
And Castor's lighting, which incorporates tubes from "architecturally significant" buildings such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's TD Centre, starts at around $700 for a small free-standing table version. The lighting is sold through Klaus by Nienkamper ( http://www.klausn.com).
Despite their lowly source material, it's the rare, one-of-a-kind nature of many upcycled pieces that accounts for the hefty price tags.
"The idea [behind the tube lights]was for every light to have a percentage of bulbs from significant buildings - you can own a piece of Mies, etc.," explains Brian Richer, who heads up Castor with partner Kei Ng.
As high-concept as they may be, however, many upcycled pieces are also infused with wit.
"We thought it would be funny," Richer says, "to use an old light as a shade for a new light."
A similar sense of humour distinguishes Toronto-based Shawn Moore and Julie Nicholson's Hybrid seating, which offers a lighthearted yet sophisticated twist on classic student "furniture" by outfitting plastic milk crates with curvy solid-wood legs and custom upholstery.
Mostly, though, a lot of today's upcycling is just plain gorgeous, which is why it's attracting not only design buffs, but also savvy commercial clients. Castor's lighting, for instance, adorns a host of stylish public spaces, from Circa nightclub in Toronto to the Chelsea Hotel and newest Nike store in New York. One of its largest tube lights to date also illuminates OddFellows, Richer and Ng's innovative new dining and retail space, which opens on Toronto's Queen Street West today.
Gorgeousness, of course, is no small feat when your source material is, say, rusty old auto parts, which is the raw matter of choice for Lionel Ceyssac, a Senegal-based designer whose work has been carried by Toronto's Roseland Gallery for several years now. In Africa, getting the most out of everyday objects is common practice, but Ceyssac takes recycling to new artistic heights, handcrafting richly patinated chairs and floor lamps with metal from old car bodies. Like Haygarth's work, Ceyssac's furnishings offer a hint of some past function but no real sense of their origins - and that's the point.
"The [source]objects," Haygarth says, "are ... assembled in a way that transforms their meaning. My work is about giving banal and overlooked objects a new significance."
And, he might add, a new vitality to design. After all, one of the most interesting aspects of upcycling is its unpredictability, as Richer of Castor points out.
Sometimes, he says, Castor's salvage efforts don't always bear fruit, but then a new old material will present itself. So what will the duo be upcycling next?
"We are working with old shoes ... and casting everything in aluminum," he says.
Can't wait to see what that might look like.