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You see an obsolete camera, I see a nightlight: 13 local upcycled products

Making new stuff from old stuff now has a name—upcycling—and an army of ingenious practitioners. A rags-to-cashmere overview of the zeitgeistiest design trend around.

Was: Cable Car Brakes
Is: Neo-Wedge Sandals

San Francisco footwear maven Martha Davis knew she’d find inspiration during her recent three-month stint at the Workshop Residence, the innovative Dogpatch space that promotes cross-pollination between craftspeople, artists, and designers. She didn’t know she’d also find a source for hardwood heels: the S.F. Muni carpentry shop nearby, which maintains the city’s cable cars, a job that includes replacing their douglas fir brake pads every three days or so. The elliptical heels in Davis’s Sugi design (named after Workshop founder Ann Hatch’s dog) rotate so that the shoe can be worn 2 or 3 inches high. The first 60 pairs sold out; now Davis has another 250 pairs in the works, this time sourcing the wooden brakes from Recology San Francisco (aka the city dump).

Buy it: $320; Workshop Residence, 833 22nd St., S.F., 415-285-2050; end of June: Metier, 355 Sutter St., S.F., 415-989-5395; Carrots, 843 Montgomery St., S.F., 415-834-9040

Photo: Kara Brodgesell for Workshop Residence

Was: Fluorescent fixture
Is: Tabletop

When designer Shawn Hall was working on the Healdsburg restaurant Mateo’s Cocina Latina, she wanted something that felt authentically yucatecan while reflecting her own trademark flea-market style—“In Mexico, tables are often made of tin and old signs.” She found rusted light housings—the metal boxes that hold fluorescent lights—at Industrial reusable materials in Windsor and old Ford leaf springs at an auto shop. The result: tables that feel like they’ve hosted generations of happy diners.

Buy it: Custom orders only; shawnehalldesigns.com

Photo: Rob Scheid

Was: Beaten-up baseball
Is: Cuff links

Marco Quintana, an IRS attorney in oakland by day, started making his own cuff links when the department store options proved boring; four years later, his QA Create line of jewelry has sold thousands of pieces. His baseball-themed cuff links incorporate scraps of old balls from every major-league team, as well as World Series tickets and vintage maps of baseball stadiums he finds in San jose junk shops. other favorite designs use salvaged typewriter keys, legos, and subway tokens.

Buy it: $25–45; etsy.com/shop/qacreate

Photo: Courtesy of QA Create

Was: Car upholstery
Is: Leather jacket

Platinum Dirt founder Dustin Page strips the upholstery from junked luxury cars, removes the stitching and foam, applies saddle soap and mink oil, and then sews the reclaimed leather into coats and bags. Every garment includes the vehicle’s VIN number—“you could actually do a carfax on your jacket,” he says.

Buy it: $1,690–2,500; Wonderland SF, 2929 24th St., S.F., 415-641-4600; platinumdirt.com

Photo: Courtesy of Platinum Dirt

Was: Golden Gate Bridge
Is: Side table

S.F. native Richard Bulan loved playing at Fort Point as a kid, so when he saw a TV news story in the early 1990s about repairs on the iconic span that forms the backdrop to his old stomp- ing grounds, he bought up the original handrails—100 tons of them. Decades later, he’s still turning the scrap into lamps and tables—including this latest club version, made with claro walnut— painted the same Sherwin-Williams International orange as everybody’s favorite photo op.

Buy it: $6,500; ggbfurniture.com

Photo: Courtesy of Golden Gate Bridge Designs

Was: Leftover pipe
Is: Chandelier

Hammers & Heels’ Alicia Engman, a neuroendocrinology research investigator turned remodeling pro, wanted a dramatic lighting fixture that did justice to a newly renovated loft. Since she didn’t know how to weld, she improvised with steel pipe (bought new back then; now she gets scrap)—and a sideline was born.

Buy it: $399; etsy.com/shop/hammersheels

Photo: Courtesy of Hammers & Heels

Was: Event banner
Is: Door curtain

Jenny Hurth started Berkeley-based Elbow Grease Designs when she noticed a discarded sign at East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. Now she makes everything from sofa slipcovers (her previous craft) to grocery bags and curtains; she’s also reworked Hardly Strictly Bluegrass banners and leftover tees into gifts for the performers.

Buy it: $55; Elbow Grease Designs, 2743 9th St., Berkeley, 510-841-8548

Photo: Amy Perl

Was: Metal blobs
Is: Pretty pendant

Jewelry designer Melissa Joy Manning found a bunch of zipper “raspberries” (discards from old zipper-making machines) at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. At her Berkeley atelier, the silvery lumps, created when hot nickel hit the factory floor, became the basis of a new collection.

Buy it: $600; Melissa Joy Manning store, 1827 5th St., Ste. A, Berkeley, 510-647-9409

Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Joy Manning

Was: Leather shreds
Is: Groovy Belt

Marin’s Geoffrey Young buys up other companies’ trash and turns it into stunning one-of-a-kind belts and jewelry (the sterling buckle on this piece was cast from a found drawer pull). Upcycling extra credit: young donates his remnants to mill valley’s Greenwood School, where students braid them into bracelets.

Buy it: $660; The Archive, 317 Sutter St., S.F., 415-391-5550; Carrots, 843 Montgomery St., S.F., 415-834-9040

Photo: Betsy Dougherty

Was: Soda can
Is: iPod speaker

Cal Poly buddies Adam Wegener and Ron Sloat were tinkering around with a make-an-amp-out-of-Altoids-tins kit when they decided to think bigger: a soda can as the building block. “It really brings out that thumping bass line,” Wegener says. Now they sell their Trash Amps—the can houses a battery-powered speaker and a retractable cord—online and at Maker Faire. The laser-cut magnet grill that tops the speaker ups the cool factor.

Buy it: $50; trashamps.com

Photo: Courtesy of Trash Amps

Was: Ratty sweater
Is: Luxe layette

Luvette founder Kathy Brady started turning cashmere castoffs into overalls and pants when her now four-year-old was an infant. The Berkeley mom of two—who also works full-time at Ashbury House, the San Francisco shelter for homeless mothers and children—sources sweaters online, then washes and machine-dries them, which shrinks the yarn and renders every piece spit-up-resistant and laundry-friendly.

Buy it: $49; Natural Resources, 367 Valencia St., S.F., 415-550-2611; Carmel Blue, 1418 Grant Ave., S.F., 415-362-2583

Photo: Annabelle Breakey

Was: Old Kodak
Is: Flattering light

Vintage-camera buff Jason Hull was just another Pixar systems administrator/geek until he debuted his nightlights at a company craft fair last fall; now he’s an etsy phenom. Working out of his Castro Valley garage, he guts commonplace but evocative models like the Brownie Starflash that he picks up on eBay and wires a lightbulb inside—the perfect upcycling metaphor if ever we heard one.

Buy it: $65; etsy.com/shop/jayfish

Photo: Jason Hull

Was: Expired watches
Is: Statement earrings

Costume designer Michelle Threadgould and her aunt, Margarita Lopez—aka the Scorpion Sisters— scour flea markets and estate sales for old timepieces and battered bits of vintage jewelry. Back at their Portola house/work studio, the sparkly junk mates with other sparkly junk; the results are more than a sum of their parts.

Buy it: $50; De Frisco Regalia, 491A Guerrero St., S.F., 415-817-1468; Scorpion Sisters Studio, 707-888-6456

Photo: Annabelle Breakey

We’re not sure exactly when the earnest, slightly scolding concept known as recycling morphed into the lighthearted, aesthetically exciting movement called upcycling. What we do know is that transforming the worn-out, the broken-down, the utterly useless into stuff that’s high style and cool beyond the usual do-gooder/ DIYer demographic feels absolutely of the moment. It’s fun, of course, testing the ingenuity and creative dexterity of established craftspeople and novices alike; even local fashion favorites like Martha Davis and Melissa Joy Manning are finding inspiration in the trash. Profitable, too: Thanks to places like Etsy, Kickstarter, and SoMa’s TechShop San Francisco work space, it’s never been easier to play around and earn some money besides. But the real appeal is socio-psychological. The making-do-with- what-we-have mindset that was so appropriate for the recession feels even more fitting now that significant swaths of the Bay Area are starting to boom again. Maybe that’s because upcycling, in its small way, is a reaction against the soul-destroying decadence of recent periods. It’s a reminder that things don’t have to be the same again if we don’t want them to be. They can get better.

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