Creative Repurposing

“Find things that don’t belong on a wall, and hang them. Whether it’s a broken guitar or a three-legged chair, hanging it up makes it art.” Josh Hughes, Punk Shui

It might help to start by explaining what creative repurposing is. I can think of two ways to do this.

Somewhat unexpectedly, one way is with dictionary definitions, supported by various texts. The OED  identifies repurpose as a transitive verb meaning, ‘convert or adapt for a different purpose or for use in a different way’, and notes early use in relation to compilation or reworking of audio, video, text and graphic materials, and in the pharmaceutical industry (aka drug repositioning). Examples include Nicholas Negroponte’s (Being Digital, 1995) use of the word in relation to the entertainment industry repackaging film as video or videodisc, and his description of the book as having been created from repurposed magazine articles. This early meaning about the assemblage of existing materials seems more akin to collage than to the deliberate change of purpose implied by repurposing. In short, the OED definition and early use don’t get at more recent meanings.

More recent use can still be difficult to pin down, in that it seems to mean redirect, or reposition. For example, this piece in The Register refers to giving an existing phrase a new meaning; the story traces a shift in meaning, and calls it repurposing. On that basis, the meaning of repurpose has itself been repurposed, and not just the once, but twice. First in the shift from ‘adapt’ to ‘reposition’, and then from one meaning of adaptation to another. The second meaning of adaptation is evident in any number of books about making useful things from discards, such as jewellery from electronic components, lampshades from books and maps, or about finding new uses for industrial waste, such as using shredded tires for playground surfaces.

The other way to explain what I mean by creative repurposing is to substantiate my own definition through a few examples of things I’ve done. For me, repurposing is about changing uses, and if possible making objects do unexpected things, which is where the creative bit comes in. It might mean making a lamp from a toaster, or lounge furniture from scaffolding, getting a pen plotter to work as a musical instrument, or a bicycle wheel as a drying rack. It can also mean more mundane things, like making picnic tables from pallets, bathmats from bits of carpet, or simply repairing something by unusual means. The basic idea is to see either a possibility or a solution in any given object.

The Lino Clutch

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This is a section of decades-old multicoloured trapezoid flooring. I’d call it diamond lino, but think it might predate linoleum. The tile is brittle, and the trapezoids are held together with a backing of string mesh and binder. The flooring can be folded at the joints, so I made it into something like a purse. It’s deceptive in 2-D because the tile dimensions appear square when seen from a particular perspective. They aren’t. This is not a photo of a cube, but of three tiles laying flat on the bench, prior to being stitched along the joints.

Pallet Picnic Table

Pallet Table, 2007

This table happened because I had two rather wide pallets among an assortment of materials left over from the Festival of Extreme Building. I stripped the slats from one, nailed them between slats of the others, and used the ribs for legs.

One might regard this as closer to recycling than repurposing, which raises some questions about where to draw a line between one and the other. I tend to think of recycling as what happens with glass, metal and some plastics: the material is returned to an earlier state of production, then reformed.

The practice of repurposing sits somewhere on a spectrum between repair and invention, both of which also deserve a bit of attention. Repair is easy to exemplify, because I do so much of it. Invention is not so easy, as it means starting from scratch, and can be a process, an idea, or something ephemeral, like food.

Improvised Laptop Repairs

Some years ago, perhaps 2004, I was given a damaged Toshiba laptop. It had no battery, battery cover, or power adaptor, the D key was missing, and the floppy drive didn’t work. I sourced a battery and power block on eBay, swapped the Ins key to the D, but couldn’t find a battery cover. So I used two styrene plant label stakes as shims to keep it in place. The battery doesn’t budge; hasn’t slipped in the years since, even in carrying it about.

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But the friction bearing that holds the screen in one position when the laptop’s open has worn out, and the whole machine tips over backwards if the display is not held in place by other means. That means is a length of 20 lb. fishing line, fed through a series of holes I drilled in the case. The result is low-profile, distinctive, and sets the display at a reasonable position.

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The Multicoloured Styrene Method

At one point during my time with the Festival of Extreme Building, I was asked to paint a thousand styrene balls for one of the installations. I was given a brush, a carton of balls, some white paint, and several bottles of dye.

I thought it would be faster to put some paint in a bag, shake it up, and spill the balls onto a drying rack. There were bags aplenty, but no racks. I went out and bought some chicken wire, found a few sticks around the site, and knocked together a frame.

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The amount of paint needed to cover a batch was minimal, and the coated balls dried quickly in the summer sun.  Within a day or so I’d covered the remaining balls in a range of hues.

Styrene 2007-07-27_001

Neither the method nor the products are inventions in an ideal sense, as all of these things have been thought of and built before. But there’s an element of inventiveness that goes into creating solutions, even when it’s reinventing the wheel. Whether it’s called invention, repurposing, recycling or repair, there’s an element of creativity, of making do with what’s at hand, and sometimes producing something unexpected.

This approach can be applied to something larger than a breadbox, something as intangible as a career. Returning to the literature of repurposing, we can see that it’s occasionally aimed at teaching, home decoration, frugality, web design, careers, and even one’s direction in life. Of these more abstract kinds of repurposing, I want to be thinking about it in terms of spaces – both social and material – and the ways they can be reconfigured, reconceived, and redirected to accommodate current needs. So some of what turns up under this tag will be about clever solutions to material needs, and some of it will be about reimagining the spaces we live in.


some relevant books

Loose Space

Design by Use: the everyday metamorphosis of things

Rubbish!: reuse your refuse

1000 Ideas for Creative Reuse

The New Low-Maintenance Garden

aRt & D: research and development in art

Insurgent Public Space

New Old House: designing with reclaimed materials

Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development

Greening Cities, Growing Communities: learning from Seattle’s urban community gardens

Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes: designing urban agriculture for sustainable cities

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