Upcycling has become a hot topic in the world of interior design in recent years, but do you know what it actually is? We sat down with interior designers, painters and upcycling experts to find out what the practice actually involves – and why it brings together sustainability and a focus on aesthetics.

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What is upcycling?

Upcycling can be defined as the 'creative recycling' of old objects. It involves the transformation of an unwanted item or material into a more valuable product.

Although the term was only coined in the 1990s, upcycling is an age-old enterprise, and examples can be found throughout history: from 16th-century coffers adorned with carvings that were added centuries later, to lamp bases made from antique ginger jars.

Although aesthetic principles are at the centre of upcycling, the practice is also about sustainable living, rather than simply throwing away the old to buy the new.

For interior designer Krystyna Martin-Dominguez, upcycling is about sustainability as much as it is about aesthetics. ‘I love the marks of age, the wear and tear, the evidence that a piece has had a life,’ she says. ‘By giving something a new purpose, you are extending and enriching that life.’ It’s also a fail-safe way to add character to a home. ‘Interiors need layers and texture,’ says Krystyna, and furniture that has been cleverly repurposed will provide a sense of personality and history. ‘It’s not all just new, new, new!’

An old dresser doubles as a kitchen unit in the home of Krystyna Martin-Dominguez.
An old dresser doubles as a kitchen unit in the home of interior designer Krystyna Martin-Dominguez. Image by Penny Wincer

Annie Sloan, the doyenne of upcycling and founder of Chalk Paint, thinks it’s time to reframe our ideas about throwing things away. ‘Our responsibility to the planet is to be more thoughtful. Reusing something is so much better than disposing of it or even recycling.’ Before buying something new, she suggests we ask ourselves if we really need it, or do we already have something that could be adapted? ‘The benefits are tenfold,’ she says. ‘You’ll have something witty and unique, that hasn’t had a negative impact on the planet.’

Read our pick of the best Annie Sloan Chalk Paint colours to use in upcycling projects.

Annie Sloan’s new Pearlescent Glaze is used to stunning effect over a white paint on an antique chest of drawers and a vintage wardrobe.
Annie Sloan’s new Pearlescent Glaze is used to stunning effect over a white paint on an antique chest of drawers and a vintage wardrobe.

Upcycling vs recycling: what's the difference?

Both upcycling and recycling involve the practice of keeping unwanted items in circulation, but there is a significant difference, which pivots around the environmental aspect of both terms.

Recycling is an industrial process in which objects are transformed into new materials, and involves the breakdown or destruction of these original items. These new materials may be used to create the same object again, or an entirely new object.

Upcycling is also referred to as 'creative recycling', and doesn't involve the destruction of an item. Instead, it brings new life to an object by adapting and transforming it with contemporary design in mind.

More like this

If you're particularly interested in the sustainable element of upcycling, read Jay Blades's guide to how to upcycle using sustainable methods and materials.

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Before you get started, read our top tips to upcycling antiques for beginners.

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