Making designer furniture from salvage

A-list stars and world-famous designers have turned scrap metal into cult collector pieces, discovers Philippa Stockley
Nick Wright
© Graham Hussey
Creative salvage fan Nick Wright at his Manor Park home in a much-treasured hand-painted Proust chair, 1978, by Alessandro Mendini
What have Mick Jagger, Mario Testino and Vivienne Westwood got in common, apart from being A-listers? They all own furniture made from such things as scaffolding poles, worn cogs, bent metal rods and discarded sheet steel and glass, generally welded together and known as creative salvage — or "cut and shut", a term that originally referred to the welding of the front and back halves of two written-off cars to make one.

Chairs, tables, and other furniture created from stuff formerly known as rubbish are now highly collectable artworks. In 1982, a young French fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, bought six of Ron Arad's Rover Chairs, each made from a Rover 2000 car seat welded to bits of scaffolding and paid £99 each for them. Today, Rover Chairs can cost thousands. In 2007, a sinuous steel "D sofa", also by Arad and made from sheet metal, sold for £200,000 at auction. But, don't worry — there are cheaper cut-and-shut things out there.

In London, the phenomenon took off during the Eighties, driven by the warehouse party trend, a young Camden Market, the opening of Space art studios and the ideas of the housing group Acme. All helped to turn dreary bits of London that were run-down and slated for demolition into lively artistic areas that would later be ritzed up by developers and snapped up by bankers.

Ron Arad's 1982 Rover Chair
Ron Arad's 1982 Rover Chair, made with scaffolding poles and a Rover 2000 car seat
The two authors of a new book called Cut and Shut — Nick Wright, a furniture dealer and novelist, and Gareth Williams, head of contemporary art and design at auctioneers Bonhams — each have a lifelong passion for furniture. They tell the stories of the designers who — often by happy accident — brought these strangely appealing pieces of creative salvage furniture to life at a time of excitement, political unrest and change.

Wright owns some early chairs made by Tom Dixon, known for his work at Habitat. One has a coal-hole cover for its seat and a back made from railings. Another, a gloriously rusty orange, is held together with twisted wire because Dixon, then 25, didn't own a welder. After leaving school, Dixon had a band called Funkapolitan.

But one day in 1984 he bought a ton of scrap iron for £75 from a dealer in Westbourne Grove, piled it into his friend Mark Brazier Jones's Land Rover, and drove it to Mark's sister's empty hairdressing salon in Kensington Church Street, W8. They dumped the metal on the floor before spending the following nights hacking it up and melding it into furniture, sharing the only welder they had, which belonged to Mark. When they had finished, they opened the doors and sold it all. Creative salvage was here.

André Dubreuil's 1986 Spine chair
© Bonhams Auctioneers
André Dubreuil's 1986 Spine chair made from reinforcement rods
Next, muralist André Dubreuil, arrived in London from France. At the time, Dixon was making fittings for the chocolate shop Rococo in King's Road and Dubreuil was hired to paint its interiors. But, since Dixon had fallen behind with his work, Dubreuil picked up a welder and mucked in. He has never looked back. His sleek consoles and tables, and particularly his Spine chairs, made from rods used in reinforced concrete and for which he is now famous, have an instantly recognisable elegance.

Cut and Shut is a fascinating account of a period when there were parts of London where young artists could live cheaply, often in squats, studios or housing associations, and so afford to have a go at doing something different. Of these, Dixon and Arad in particular are now designers of huge international repute, bringing money to Britain, while their earliest work, sometimes made on a wing and a prayer, is eagerly bought by those who value imagination, one-offs, and things that are hand-made.

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Book Offer:

Homes&Property readers can buy a copy of Cut and Shut: The History of Creative Salvage, by Gareth Williams and Nick Wright, for £50, including UK postage, from creativesalvagebook.com
* Nick Wright's first novel, Twelve Miles Out, about pirate DJs based in Liverpool Bay, launches December 6, 2012 (fishpublishing.com).

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