Upcycling items that are on the verge of being discarded into functional objects you’ll actually want to keep around isn’t only thrifty and good for the environment—it’s also a great creative challenge for the common crafter looking to get innovative. Don’t know where to start? Environmental expert Danny Seo (whose birthday is on Earth Day) inspires you to think outside the crafting box in his new book “Upcycling: Create Beautiful Things With the Stuff You Already Have” (Running Press, 2011). We tapped Danny’s brain to get a true idea of the mind of an avid upcycler, and got a few ideas that’ll have you running to the thrift store, stat.
First things first: Why dedicate a whole book to upcycling?
It's never been done before is one reason, but also it's really the only way I know how to craft. I've been doing these regular segments on “The Today Show” where I've been determined to prove to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb that turning trash into treasure can be a beautiful thing. They are so critical (in a loving way) of each thing I've ever done. I remember when I showed them these upcycled crayons I made and they both said "I like this!" I felt redemption. So I wanted each project in this book to basically be Kathie Lee and Hoda approved...there are 100 in there that I know they’ll love.
When did you start upcycling and what was the first project you made?
When I was a kid, I begged my mother to let me stop in a junk store that we would pass all the time. My mother never wanted to stop because she couldn't imagine a) paying money for trash, and b) going inside a dark and dusty store. But one day she finally did stop and I found myself in heaven, rummaging through piles of stuff, seeing what I could find. I saw a stack of chairs for $5, bought them and scrubbed them clean. I realized if I unscrewed the seat cushion, covered it with an old argyle sweater I had and reattached it, I'd have sweater chairs! That project—which I made when I was 11—is still one of my most popular upcycling projects ever.
The materials. I love to walk through a Goodwill store and just see what people in general are tossing out or donating. One of my stylists once suggested I come up with projects using those fancy orange Hermes boxes and I flat-out refused: Who has stacks of those boxes? I sure don't. But going to Goodwill lets me see ordinary things like picture frames, silk flowers, cassette tapes, chipped dishes and Crock-Pots in a whole new way.
You've been dubbed an "environmental lifestyle expert." What exactly does this mean to you?
I launched an environmental group for kids on my 12th birthday with a few friends and grew it into the largest teenage eco group in the country by the time I was 18. I’ve always cared about the environment. I always had this urge to be creative, too. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I realized I could marry the two together and not only create a business around it, but stay true to both my environmental and creative roots. I still can't believe I get paid to do what I do.
How can the everyday crafter start upcycling?
See what you have a lot of. Empty your junk drawers, your recycling bins, the pile of "stuff" you've been meaning to donate. Play around with it. You’ll make mistakes and things will come out looking horrendous, but no money is lost because you started off with trash to begin with. Flip through my book “Upcycled” and get inspired. Come up with your own ideas—there are lots of techniques in the book that may inspire something totally new.
What's a personal favorite project featured in your new book?
The ceramic silk flowers for sure. Everyone has ugly silk flowers you just don't know what to do with. Dipping them in wet plaster is such an easy but unexpected way to make them look, well, just like ceramic. It was the very first project I came up with for the book and it remains my all-time fave.
Other than upcycling, what does your day-to-day life consist of?
A lot of design boards, writing, blogging and calls. I have a whole collection of eco-friendly home products sold nationally in stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods under the Danny Seo name. We're constantly coming up with new ideas for bedding, towels, home decor and more. Right now, I'm working on a recycled gold jewelry collection and shopping flea markets, thrift shops and antique stores for inspiration pieces—so much fun.
Working on the follow-up book! “Upcycled Celebrations” will be out next year with lots of ideas for parties, holidays and more. This book is so much fun to create, but it was a little weird to be making Christmas ornaments in the summer.