Homes The British designer Max McMurdo creates eco-friendly furniture which blends style with substance.
Designs for life
If you've ever thought how your old bath might make a nice sofa, or how well a shopping trolley might go in your sitting room, you may be familiar with the work of Max McMurdo. The 30-year-old British furniture designer behind the reestore brand is the poster boy of the eco-design movement. The ethos behind reestore is simple: just because something is environmentally friendly, doesn't mean it has to be ugly.
McMurdo, who found business success on the BBC reality TV show, takes everyday waste objects - a wheelbarrow, or the cylinder from a washing machine for example - and converts them into statement furniture, be it a chair, table or lamp. His designs may have humble beginnings, but the end results are distinctly designer: striking, simple and spare, with a quirk, or perhaps "quite eccentrically English" as the designer himself puts it. They are also, thanks to the reuse of waste products and the reduction of energy used in the manufacturing process, gentler on the environment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McMurdo's description of his furniture fits him pretty well, too. We meet in the glass showroom that also makes up part of his workshop in Colmworth, a village in his native Bedfordshire, an hour north of London. He comes across as something of an art-school dandy, impishly handsome with a goatee beard and casually dressed in old jeans, and a white shirt teamed with a paisley cravat.
Nonetheless, his manner is unpretentious and direct, and when talking about his work he is passionate without being intense. He also has a sense of humour. "All our waste is recycled, suppliers vetted and we only boil enough water for one cuppa at a time. Note: we sometimes don't wear hemp," declares the reestore website. Most of all, he gives the impression of being someone who has finally been given the chance to do what he has always wanted.
As with most overnight successes, the reality is that it's been a long time in the making. McMurdo started young - he had his own workbench at the age of three, so he could work alongside his father. He also demonstrated a strong visual awareness from an early age, being able to tell what make a car was merely from the shape of its headlamps. Ironically, perhaps, his design career started at Ford in Cologne, Germany. It sounded like the perfect job, but he soon discovered that his time was to be spent creating the backs of car headlamps, or designing switches. Disillusioned, he dreamt of going it alone, working on a product that he conceived, manufactured and sold, all by himself.
There was, however, one aspect of life in Cologne that did inspire him: the German dedication to eco-friendly living, which was seriously lacking in the UK at the time. So in 2001 he returned home, found work as a design teacher, and embarked on a new venture. "I set to work with five shopping trolleys, a hammer and an angle grinder in my parents' back garden," he remembers. The result was Annie, the shopping-trolley chair, still a cornerstone in reestore's collection. The reestore family soon grew to include Silvana, a table made out of a washing-machine drum, Heather, a lamp made from waste tubing, and Max, a sofa made from an old bath. And the names, should you be wondering, are all taken from friends and family: "The Max bathtub chaise is named after my father; Silvana after my granny. She used to make us drink endless cups of tea, hence the frosted glass so you can rest your mug on it," McMurdo explains.
But while he clearly had talent, McMurdo lacked business acumen. It was plain to those around him that he would need outside assistance to make reestore work. So last year, his girlfriend Debbie persuaded him to apply to take part in Dragons' Den. While most reality shows measure their success in tabloid inches, Dragons' Den, where would-be entrepreneurs get the chance to pitch their businesses or inventions to a panel of potential backers, is geared towards its contestants' commercial successes.
McMurdo's approach was predictably straightforward: to explain his idea and admit that he was clueless when it came to business. It worked, securing the support of the notoriously tough businesswoman Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis, head of the stationary chain Ryman. His investors have not been slow in putting their money where their mouths are: Paphitis has since redecorated the whole of Ryman's Wimbledon head office using reestore furniture, and he recently gave Simon Jordan, the chairman of Crystal Palace football club, a shopping-trolley chair as a present. Paphitis also commissioned a desk made from an old aeroplane wing topped with glass. McMurdo named it Deborah, in honour of his other Dragon investor.
For McMurdo, the change has been immense. "I have no time to eat or sleep any more," he admits. But it's clear that he thinks it's worth the cost, both personally and financially. "The Dragons' Den came just two weeks before my 30th birthday," he adds. "I was determined to have achieved something by the time I was 30." Now, a year on from the show, his designs are stocked by stores such as Selfridges and Colin Firth's West London shop Eco. McMurdo has also been able to claim his first salary from the company. He and his girlfriend bought a dog, Monty, to celebrate: "Most people buy a fast car - we bought a terrier," he says.
Fame and fortune may now be part of the picture, but McMurdo makes it clear that it's still the design - and the ethos behind it - that really inspires him. "People ring up all the time and say, 'I've seen a trolley' or 'I've found a bit of scrap - what can I do with it?" he says, with obvious delight. "If my work makes designers think, 'This is going to go into landfill, what can we keep and use?' that's a good thing."
And, while 50 per cent of his clients are companies, McMurdo values the contact with individuals that his work brings too. "I used to do everything from the design to the delivery," he says. "I remember going to one house. There was this little girl, all dressed up, and they'd made a space for the Silvana table in the sitting room. They were so excited to meet the designer. It was really wonderful."
These days reestore works on rather a grander scale, and soon it is to fully unveil its most ambitious project to date: Ben the Bin. Ben is a brightly coloured plastic holder designed to allow people to sort their recycling effectively. Unlike reestore's other products, which can be labour and design-intensive, Ben the Bin is mass produced in China (carbon offset, naturally) and will be sold via its website and Ryman in the UK.
"I designed it because I wanted somewhere to hang plastic bags, other than on the back of my door," McMurdo explains. "Realistically I can save about 1,000 trolleys from landfill with my chairs, but with this I can make a significant difference." As to what comes next, it sounds like that rather depends on what McMurdo finds that he needs - and what he finds on the tip. "Working with scrap is collaborative, it's not like working with a white piece of paper," he points out.
To see more of Max McMurdo's work visit the reestore website at @email:www.reestore.com. You can order Ben the Bin singly or in packs of three from www.benthebin.com.