Today's blog post is with contemporary artist and designer Helen Middleton – owner of Helen Middleton Studio based in Cheshire. Helen creates playful, stylish furniture and home accessories from steel and industrial waste material
Why did you start creating products from waste?
Whilst studying at University in Applied Arts I gained a strong knowledge in wood working, metal work and ceramics. When I graduated I specialised in metal as I loved the versatility of the material and the fact that steel is 100% recyclable. I would design the pieces and get local manufacturers to fabricate the finished products. Last year I was exhibiting at 100% Design , London where a new and exciting opportunity came my way. I was already thinking of ways my business could be more sustainable, making my exhibition stand very minimal with all business cards and images made from cotton rag paper and the plinths displaying my work created from recyclable cardboard which could be used again and again. At the exhibition I was approached by a company who wanted to work with designers to re-purpose their industrial waste. They were really passionate about making a difference and were aware of how the waste they produced affected the environment. I was invited to look around their factory where I discovered so many different materials with endless possibilities. The two waste pieces I chose were the large waste metal sheets, as I have worked with metal before, and the empty ink cartridges. I went away to experiment with the material and work on new design ideas.
When did you get the idea to create art from waste?
During lockdown all my manufacturers were closed and I had a room full of metal that I didn't know what to do with. It was then that I came up with the idea of creating my own artwork from re-purposed industrial waste metal. Using the metal as the canvas for my art not only gave the material a completely new use but it was so relaxing painting away during the height of lockdown. I would draw in pencil or paint by hand directly onto the metal using acrylics to create stylish sustainable artwork. I love all the quirky colour charts and text that appears under the paint. My artwork is inspired by scenes around Manchester where I live – The Northern Quarter and Manchester's iconic music scene from the Hacienda and Factory Records. The original pieces are made completely from waste metal and the prints are made using cotton rag paper. I loved how cotton rag paper was formed entirely from scrap t-shirts and rags and thought it tied in nicely with the cotton mills and factories around Manchester. My artwork is packaged in biodegradable film to keep the print waterproof and posted out in recyclable brown cardboard envelopes.
Lighting from empty ink tubes
What do you do with hundreds of empty tubes no longer needed? Well, create lighting of course! When I saw the tubes in the factory they looked amazing – semi transparent tubes with left over stripes of colour inside. Straight away I thought the shape lent itself to the perfect lampshade and went about designing the product. The finished design is called 'The Smudge Lampshade' handmade from empty ink tubes with a strip of waste metal around it's base. I hand painted the metal base in chalk paint so you can customise your lampshade to fit your interior. By making products customisable it encourages people to reuse them for longer – instead of throwing them away. Instead of replacing the product when they change their room décor, they can simply change the pattern to match their new look.
How can I repurpose waste?
Recycling plastic is obviously great and should be encouraged but we need to create less plastic in the first place. Repurposing plastic and waste material is the best way forward to prevent even more plastic entering our seas and landfills. Lorry loads of plastic enter the sea every single minute and this just simply cannot continue. Plastic does not disappear; it breaks down into micro-particles which affects marine life. Tiny pieces of plastic are being found in sea food /fish which is so alarming. I remember my gran was amazing at reusing and mending her belongings instead of throwing them away. She even sewed up her dusters!. Maybe we should think about how many items we own, can we modernise the pieces we already have and make them into something new. Old clothes can be cut up into cloths or transformed into bags and purses. By thinking of inventive ways to reuse your waste it not only saves you money but is incredibly fun and rewarding whilst providing alternatives to landfill. You can use POSCA pens which can write on metal, fabric, wood and glass and come in a variety of colours. Have fun creating fun new products this Christmas for little or no money whilst promoting a circular economy. See what's new in my collection by connecting with me on Instagram or visiting my website.