Why has upcycling become so popular in contemporary interior design?

Innovative lighting designs

Innovative lighting designs - Credit: Archant

Lee Richards from Upcycled Creative in Cromford talks to Catherine Roth about recycling, creativity and innovation

Light fantastic

Light fantastic - Credit: Archant

Upcycled Creative breathes new life into old, turning reclaimed and recycled materials into unique items. Through imagination and creativity Lee Richards creates functional pieces with a contemporary vintage twist.

Lee first began upcycling when he thought he could make use of all the empty bottles his local pub was throwing out. He says, ‘I collected the bottles and turned them into lamps. I learnt how to drill and fit them with LEDs but not before breaking a hundred bottles in the process until I finally worked out how to do it!’

He soon realised just how much of what was thrown away could be given a new lease of life. Lee says, ‘I saw someone throwing a chest of drawers away and thought that someone who’s been rehoused and has no money could use it. I saw fire extinguishers being dumped and thought they could make lamps. I saw a skip full of galvanised pipework and thought surely you could do something with that? I wanted to educate people so they didn’t have to throw things away.’

After working in sales management within the automotive sector for 20 years, Lee decided it was time for a career change and pursued his love of upcycling by setting up his business Upcycled Creative six years ago. Lee worked out of his garage for a while before workshop premises became available at Markeaton Park Craft Village. Then last year, after 18 months, he moved to Cromford Mills where he opened a dedicated shop complete with a workshop space. With its whitewashed lime plaster walls the shop is a blank canvas, creating a backdrop to frame his products like works of art in an exhibition.

Bespoke ceiling lighting made from reclaimed iron pipe fittings

Bespoke ceiling lighting made from reclaimed iron pipe fittings - Credit: Archant

Lee found himself creating bars for pubs and restaurants, making tables, bookshelves and drawer units from reclaimed wood and transforming old and worn sideboards and drawers into sought-after pieces. He even turned a car engine into a table and skateboards into a set of shelves. Lee says, ‘Upcycled items can look good, are unique and can create a talking point. It’s having something in your home no one else will have seen when your friends come round.’

However, it was his quirky lighting that really took off. He has made lamps from old fire extinguishers and industrial pipe work complete with old factory switches, turned cameras and demijohns into lights, transformed the grill of a Jeep into a bespoke light, fashioned a floor lamp out of skis, and turned a violin complete with bow into a stunning wall light. He even made a lamp out of an old air brick. Lee says, ‘I like lighting. It’s a piece of art you can look at during the day and at night it gives a nice subtle ambience – calming and relaxing. It creates that talking point. I like creating items that really push the boundaries by being different.’

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Lee works long days and, although his shop closes at 4pm, he is often there until late creating new pieces from old. Sometimes he’ll see a use for something immediately. Other times he may keep pieces for months before inspiration strikes. Lee says, ‘I knew about electrics but everything else I’ve taught myself. I will give anything a go and find things only go wrong if you try and rush it.’

Always enjoying a new challenge, he is currently transforming an old horse box into a catering van.

Studio at Cromford Mills

Studio at Cromford Mills - Credit: Archant

He also welcomes feedback on his products from customers. Lee says, ‘I like to hear if someone doesn’t like something. For me it’s positive. People will often say, “This is lovely, this is different.” But I also want others to say, “I don’t like it!” It’s my way of getting true feedback. I recently made a Pipe Lamp and changed the design when I made another one following feedback from a customer.’

Half of Lee’s sales are through his online shop and he has dispatched orders internationally including to Australia, Dubai, France, Ireland and Switzerland.

Lee is also kept busy with a steady stream of commissions. He has provided lighting for Liverpool Football Club, Deliveroo’s new head office, Bulmer’s Cider, four of ChimiChanga’s restaurants, a central London bar after being approached by an interior designer, as well as various celebrity clients. Lee’s commissions have also included bars and furniture. Closer to home in Derby, he has created bespoke lighting for the charming and quirky Wonky Table restaurant on Sadler Gate.

People bring items to him so that he can give them a new lease of life. Lee built a table incorporating a lady’s Champagne cork collection and has also created two lamps from an antique microscope and its box. Lee says, ‘A customer came in with a microscope in a box. It had been her grandfather’s and was bought for him to use at medical school. When her father went to medical school he used it too. Then her father passed away. When she brought it in, the microscope had been in the loft for the last five or six years not doing anything. She didn’t know what to do with it except that she wanted to keep it as it was of sentimental value.’

Innovative lighting designs

Innovative lighting designs - Credit: Archant

Lee is also happy to share his skills with others. He worked with a group of disadvantaged emerging young artists at QUAD in Derby, helping them to create recycled products which led to a public exhibition of work. He is also running a series of workshops at Cromford Mills for those who want to learn the skills of upholstery and furniture painting. The skills taught range from re-covering dining room chairs and footstools to a full chaise longue, painting and waxing, as well as découpage and gold, silver and copper leaf work.

With his unique products and enterprising business venture, Lee won recognition from entrepreneur and former Dragon’s Den businessman Theo Paphitis and was accepted on to his scheme which supports businesses with a series of mentoring and networking opportunities.

Lee never knows what items will turn up next but is always ready for a new challenge. He says, ‘I have always dreamed of buying an old tank or a car, taking it apart and using all the bits to make tables and other items.’ With Lee’s vision and creativity, it’s certainly no pipe dream. Upcycled Creative continues to go from success to success.


ChimiChanga - Credit: Archant

Upcycled Creative is open every day 10am-4pm at Cromford Mills.

For further details visit www.upcycledcreative.co.uk