“Never underestimate the power of trash, and the power of creativity to transform just about anything.”
Maybe it’s the crisp, clean mountain air. Or the gorgeous scenery. Or maybe her mind is just gifted with the power to unlock the potential in junk, but for whatever the reason, author Susan Wasinger creates uber clever solutions out of rubbish. She gets my vote for the Queen of Green.
Q: You live in the beautiful foothills outside of Boulder, Colorado. How does your environment affect your work?
A: Well, it’s a beautiful natural environment that I love. We are lucky enough to be able to look out our windows and see almost no sign of humans’ impact—the surrounding area is virtually untouched. That is a lucky and rare occurrence. The last thing I want is to be part of a problem that fills this place with debris and damage. We’re far enough away from town that people up here sometimes have to use their ingenuity and make something rather than jumping in the car and going to the store to get what they need. We share junk piles and hardware stashes quite liberally with our neighbors. The notion of one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is a daily truth as I bike over the hill to my neighbor to get a strip of metal for a project or pull the nails out of an old board. Our house was built out of leftovers and recycled bits and pieces; all the windows in our circular great room were recycled from a green house that was dismantled. Brick for our chimney came from an old grain silo. Our arch-top front was salvaged from on old bungalow. All the windows in the addition were “rejects” from building sites and warehouses when other people’s projects took a different turn—I just drew all the architectural plans around what I could scrounge. The beautiful sea green tiles in the bathroom are made of glass recycled from wine bottles. The furniture is almost all from junk stores and garage sales. So it seems natural and normal that I would fill up my house with re-purposed stuff like a chandelier made from recycled baby food jars that hangs over my dining room table, or the folding screen made from plastic six-pack holders that divides my living room from the entrance hall.
Q: Was there a catalyst that caused you to start transforming “rubbish” into functional and decorative pieces?
A: I have always loved making something out of nothing, staring down a piece of junk and seeing the secret identity hidden within. That impulse exists very closely inside me with the frugal environmentalist who hates to see mountains of solid waste clogging the landscape. Oh, plus I have a terrible weakness for beauty and style and change, I really like new things in my life. So I make stuff. Most of the time I hardly need an excuse. For instance, when the year’s new phone book arrives on my doorstep, I start thinking about what I should do with the old one. So here’s a quick example: flowers from the pages. Though I admit, this doesn’t recycle very MUCH of a phone book, but it is a way to keep my brain limber and keep thinking out of the box. Plus, I give these flowers to others, and it makes them focus for a moment on their own trash and how it can be transformed…
Other times the catalyst is a problem. Fluorescent and LED lights are one such “problem”. I adore their energy efficiency, and I know that they are our future, but I dislike the quality and tone of light they give off. So I spend lots of time trying to “tame” that light by making creative and interesting and warm and inviting lamps and lampshades. Here is an example I have a bunch of lively fixtures that hang in the entrance hall of my house. They light up the room even when the bulbs are turned off!
Q: What was your first “eco-friendly” project?
A: I can’t even remember my first recycled project, I was just always making something from something else, even when I was a kid: dresses from old pillow cases, ski parkas from old down sleeping bags, coat racks from vintage doorknobs, pet beds from battered suitcases—it was just a part of my DNA. It was about a decade ago that the publisher of Natural Home Magazine asked me to turn my slightly bizarre compulsion into a regular department in the magazine. And so I started making things from trash, photographing the steps and the finished product, and writing about them in a column called “Try This”. I guess that is when I went from being a slight wacko to become a professional re-psycho. One early project was a light sconce made from a little scrap of rabbit fencing woven with recycled magazine strips. Weird? Yes, but also a little bit wonderful. Functional too, it’s shown here on the wall in my studio.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece that now graces your home or that you use often?
A: You would laugh if you came into my house to see all the eco crafted stuff around. Mixing bowl hanging pendant lamps, a footstool made from fabric liberated from a discarded sample book (and stuffed tightly with foam peanuts!). I think my favorite project still is the six-pack room divider screen. I just adore that I took some of the worst trash imaginable—those plastic things that choke baby seals and kill sea turtles—and transformed it in to something beautiful and functional. People who visit ALWAYS comment on it, they think it’s a Moorish-patterned screen made from some kind of rice paper or shoji material. So I challenge them to look closer and figure out what it’s REALLY made of. There’s always a shriek and then a big belly laugh when they figure it out. Recently, I made a sort of curtain/shade out of those same plastic six pack holders which turned out pretty cool. It’s very graphic and textural and diffuses the light just a touch in the south-facing windows of my studio.
Q: What types of materials do you find the most inspirational to work with (glass, plastics, metals, fabrics, etc.)?
A: I just made a very cool agenda cover out of an old tire inner-tube for a friend’s 50th birthday. He loved it, and I love that it’s a great gift for people of every age and gender. I have given away lots of painted wine bottle vases, and lately, I have been adding flowers made from old yellow pages and magazines to the vases. I can make a very credible and beautiful rose from yellow pages these days. Also, I’m an obsessive about recycled wrapping, often spending more time on the wrapping than on the gift. I love to use old maps, crinkled manila envelopes, or newspaper (the stock market quotes are some of the coolest graphically) to wrap the present. Then I add tags made from cut up junk mail, post-marked envelopes, or gold foil candy wrappers. Torn magazines, wallpaper samples, and shopping bag handles all make excellent bows. I also like to toss in some cool hardware like old buttons, rusty nuts and bolts, or random game pieces (Scrabble, chess, joker cards) to add an unexpected embellishment. I even once threw a gift wrapping party before the holidays where a dozen friends brought all their presents over and we made this big glorious mess wrapping all the stuff into the wee hours. It was a great way to be sociable and festive and productive all at the same time. What a blast! Every present was wrapped in 100% recycled stuff, and the recipients raved more about how beautiful and inspiring the wrapping was than they did about their gifts inside. Here is a package wrapped with an old paper bag, a piece of recycled aluminum foil, and a beer bottle cap that stands in for a bow, kinda cool. Also, I have been wrapping with old tissue paper sewing patterns coupled with gift tags that are made from quotes and quips cut from magazines, then glued or stitched onto recycled card stock. Easy, fun, lovely.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of sewn projects for some of my recent books. I love working with a fabric I make by fusing old plastic grocery bags together into a new material. It’s incredibly versatile and fun to work with and can be made to look different for any project, from graphic and edgy, to something that resembles a fine, natural material like parchment or hide. I’ve made lamp shades, lunch totes, book covers, shopping totes, and even a full-blown messenger bag solely out of old, cruddy plastic bags. Using the graphics and colors from the old bags, you can collage together some really lovely “fabric”.
Q: What advice would you give someone who’s looking at their own pile of recyclables and trying to figure out what to make with them?
A: Start by suspending judgment and stop thinking of it as junk or trash. Look carefully at it to find what makes it appealing. Is it the shape, or the surface of the material? Is there a graphic element on it that could be used in some other way? Turn it over, or inside out, hold it up to the light, cut off the ugly parts, layer it with something else. In short, suspend your normal preconceived notions and start playing with it. Look for what makes it strong and interesting, then highlight that. For instance, plastic deli containers are all about structure and are virtually indestructible, so cover up the cheap-o plastic with paper mache and turn them into drawer organizers. Shiny foil candy wrappers are flashy, festive, and have inherent bling so use some to decorate a gift tag or decoupage them onto furniture for a gold leaf effect. Old plastic milk jugs can have a translucent, rice paper look to them when roughed up with sandpaper, so use the abundant material in them to make a lampshade. Wine and beer bottles have lovely, sensuous shapes, so paint them and make them into vases. Play to the strength of your junk. Never underestimate the power of trash, and the power of creativity to transform just about anything.