How to breathe new life into your second-hand furniture

08th August 2022
Jennifer Barton

Kent-based designer, Zoe Murphy, talks about her passion for reusing and recycling furniture and how her project at this year’s Revival can help you breathe new life into pre-loved items.


Furniture and textile designer Zoe Murphy has always been preoccupied with recycling and reusing (‘waste’ is one of her most hated words). Her passion for ensuring things live up to their full potential is what fuels her work as a designer and by using the centuries-old method of screen printing on furniture to revitalise old pieces.

Zoe reconstructs mid-century furniture for the BBC show Money for Nothing, and her interest in history has inspired her latest project on post-war heroes. She’s pairing up furniture and textile designers from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to restore and decorate three different pieces with her prints – a project you can watch her meticulously working on at the Revival’s brand new Revive & Thrive Village this September.  

As part of her message of ‘loving what belongs to you’, Zoe will also be hosting a workshop on how to screen print onto wooden furniture handles, which attendees can take home and use to spruce up a tired piece of their own furniture.

Here, she shares the joy of finding beauty in the unexpected, tells us why her hometown of Margate is her forever muse and explains how upcycling something imbues it with new significance.

Tell us about your furniture and design work

The furniture I make is decorated with this traditional printmaking process. Rather than simply hand-paint or distress furniture, I draw and paint my own graphics and then I use the screen printing method, which is usually used for textiles or fine art printmaking, but I apply it to furniture pieces.

I’ve been doing it for nearly 15 years and studied textile design at university. It was the storytelling aspect of imagery, colour and print on fabric that interested me. That was the vehicle I was going to use to share messages, as well as reusing things.


What’s screen printing?

Screen printing is the process whereby ink or paint is pushed through tiny holes in a stretched fabric screen. It’s very different to hand painting or some other printmaking techniques in that it creates a really flat block of colour. It's a very 1950s look in itself – screen printing became really popular in the middle of the last century.

It is the kind of process people can pick up at home if they're inspired, with a little screen printing kit. Hopefully once people see it at Revival, it will encourage them to take up ambitious recycling at home.

What workshops will you be hosting at the Revival this year?

We're going to have a space in the Revive & Thrive Village, styled up as our studio, which I’m really excited about. There will be a lot of creatives there who take inspiration from the post-war era, but they also recycle and reuse things in some way.

I'm going to be showing people how to screen print onto furniture handles (wooden drawer pulls) and they can take a little pair home with them to re-use on their own furniture.


Which furniture projects will you be working on across the Revival weekend?

As well as bringing a bit of the process and my own pieces along, I’ve elected to do an additional “Post-War Heroes” project, where I’m bringing three pieces that celebrate different partnerships from the '40s, '50s and '60s, which I’ll restore and decorate with my prints.

For the 1940s, I’m using a Gordon Russell sideboard. His company was instrumental in establishing utility furniture during the war and making moderated designs that used less. I’m pairing that with designs inspired by Enid Marx. They're going to look very ‘of their era’, each of them.

For the 1950s, I’m using an Ercol sideboard and the textile designs of Lucienne Day, and for the 1960s, I’m using a G Plan piece of furniture and I’ll be screen printing onto that with designs inspired by Barbara Brown, who did these crazy, optical patterns.

I’m doing a lot of research, so when people are exposed to these three signature pieces, they can ask for information and there’s going to be a booklet that tells them about each of the designers.

I think it's going to be a really exciting opportunity to inform the visitors about some post-war British designers they might not know about already.

Tell us a bit about your upcycling journey

I’ve always been preoccupied with recycling and reuse. ‘Waste’ is one of my most hated words. The thought of things not being used to their full potential is really offensive to me. I love the idea of things being rescued and reused in any way that they can.

The very act of a product being made stamps the time it was made and the person who made it. Every time people interact with, use, live a life alongside it, take it somewhere, it adds this value that can be beautiful to recognise, or at least honour, in continuing the life of that product.

When I was studying, I recognised that I could reuse materials but the drawings and paintings that I applied to them could also add that extra level. I love sharing information through my work. It feels like it’s not just the gift but also the duty of the designer to educate people if they want to.


What’s been the main inspiration for your work?

When I was studying at university I did a whole project for my final show about my hometown of Margate, where I still live. I was really inspired by its colourful, slightly gaudy history. I wanted people to recognise the potential in the place I was from, so I started making prints and textiles and eventually furniture designs that were inspired by growing up here, this strange seaside resort that lost its touch a little bit.

Using that as a metaphor – or a muse – I came up with this idea of ‘loving what belongs to you’, and started applying that to everything I did. All the work I’ve been making for a long time has been inspired by the British seaside and living in a place like Margate.

Even the building I live in is a good example of that push and pull of disliking something, but finding things about it to love. It’s a tower block called Arlington House, right on the seafront – a very Brutalist design, built in the 1960s. A lot of people think it’s really rundown, the paint is peeling off the walls, but it has incredible views over the ocean and it’s such an important piece of Margate history.

Part of the reason I love telling stories on furniture is because they represent a sketchbook page of my life and that imbues that with more significance, which will become important to other people as well.

How would you advise someone to start upcycling?

For those who want to start a business in the industry, have a really good think about your principles. It's possible to create things in response to a trend, it's possible to create things in response to a piece of furniture sat in front of you, but I think a healthy way of proceeding – especially if you want to get into the design side of the recycled industry but even in terms of using the things in your home – is having a good conversation with yourself about what you would like to see and create.


If you could give people one message to take away from you and your work at  Revival, what would it be?

The thing I care about the most is inspiring people to believe that much more is possible than you think. I think my furniture does that.

I like when people spot it and go, “Oh wow, that looks really appropriate but also, really unexpected.” And I like them to think about absolutely everything around them in that same sort of way.

Have you been to the Revival before?

This will be my second time. I went last year and completely fell in love with it. Growing up in Margate, which had a really big heyday in the '50s and '60s, being at Goodwood felt really familiar to me.

I was there in support of a friend who runs a furniture and lighting company called The Rag and Bone Man. They make things from old Rolls-Royces, jet engines and aeroplanes, so I was dressed in a pair of white overalls, like racing gear. I didn’t expect how much effort everyone puts in. I’m really excited about going all out this year. I might get some Victory Rolls!

Having just been through our own extreme two-year experience, we can all probably relate to that post-war mood a little more. I was thinking today about how a lot of the need for invigoration and excitement and joy is present now, as it was heavily present in the years after the war.

Find Zoe at the Revive & Thrive Village where she’ll be hosting her own crafting cabin offering the chance to screen print upcycled wooden handles to give your old furniture a new look. Zoe will also be working on a mid-century furniture restoration project throughout the weekend.

This year at Revival, the Revive & Thrive Village will be packed to the rafters with artisans, experts and influencers sharing their wisdom around both thrifting and how to then repair, repurpose and restyle your haul. Learn how to transform old clothes into new looks, scrap metal into works of art and unloved furniture into stylish statement pieces. Book your tickets now to join the second-hand revolution.

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