Tackling the misconceptions behind upcyling, the New York-based designer, Nicole McLaughlin is expanding our understanding of how to birth new life into the world around us, making the case for a new kind of timeless material culture.
In 2003, my Mom purchased a copy of Paul Smith’s newly-released book You can Find Inspiration in Everything. It was neatly placed on top of an assortment of Phaidon’s and Taschen’s, on display in the living room, an arrangement that we would call today, a coffee table book. I noticed an asterisk at the end of the title, or rather, a star to my 6-year-old self and puzzled over its meaning before turning the pages to discover the rest of the title “*and if you can’t, look again!” It was a phrase I soon regurgitated into my own speech with regularity to my parents and friends alike without fully understanding its meaning.
I reflect on this statement now in the midst of a society slowly grappling with the concept of sustainability and its fundamental value not only as a trait of conscientiousness, but as an obligation. When we think of the word sustainability and the bi-products of it, most notably upcycling, it’s often compared to the make do and mend ideology of the Second World War. It was a philanthropic moment in time where we lived more frugally, rationing in a wartime economy by reusing old clothing with thrifty patches to mask the moth bites leaving behind holes in our clothes. The parallel between this part of history and the sedated pace of upcycling today feels missguided however. Drawing on this pastime, we perceive upcycling as a process of addition; fixing what is broken to prolong its life. Yet, the barriers to our ecological progression exist in viewing these garments and objects as protracting livelihoods rather than renewed.
The New York-based designer executes this misplacement perfectly, proving upcycling to go far beyond mending. Instead, her designs provide a total renaissance to the object we knew before. What began as a hobby, soon evolved into a career for McLaughlin who sews irony deep into the seams of her new creations where volleyballs evolve into slippers, camera cases to bralettes, and car fresheners to a pair of culottes. Her inventions are unexpected unions of the banal, diversifying the narrative and perception around waste.
Partnering with Polaroid to debut their latest Polaroid Go model, The Next Hour caught up with Nicole McLaughlin to go behind the scenes in her Brooklyn studio exploring the relationship between time and her craft, and notably, her global mission to expand the possibilities of our pre-existing surroundings.
The Next Hour: The concept of time is integral to your work, bringing fragments of the past and birthing them with new life. What was the starting point for this and what conversation are you hoping to start with your work?
Nicole McLaughlin: My work focuses on sustainability and upcycling. Time is a part of that equation, represented by the materials I use, which are second hand/ used. However, the starting point began with waste and my desire to learn how to utilize it. The visuals and materials may differ in what I make, but the message is always the same; upcycling.
TNH: More broadly, can you tell us a little bit about how you got your creative footing?
NM: I previously worked at Reebok as a graphic designer. While I was there, I was surprised by the sheer amount of waste that was created from sampling, sourcing, etc. I took some of it home and started experimenting with it. I’m not a trained designer, but I didn’t let that stop me from making. And I never stopped.
TNH: What does an average day look like for Nicole McLaughlin?
NM: Every day is a mixed bag of working on projects and meetings. I try to make time to go for a run or go to the climbing gym when I can. The one constant is lots of coffee.
TNH: How long do you usually spend working on each garment? Where do you draw inspiration from?
NM: It depends on what I’m trying to make. Some things take a few hours, and others take weeks, if not months. I also take things apart once I finish them to reuse materials for other projects. Most of my inspiration comes from the materials themselves. They tend to dictate the shape and flow of things.
TNH: You typically use objects that we value to have a limited time span. What’s your process for choosing these objects?
TNH: Photographs capture snapshots in time and eternalise them forever. What has it been like to work with Polaroid on this campaign? Is there a picture that stands out for you as one of your favorites?
NM: Working with Polaroid allowed me to add an extra level of tangibility to my process. What would have been captured on my phone was replaced by film. They encouraged me to document as much of my process as possible, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know if I have a favorite photo because they all help tell a bigger story.
TNH: How would you describe the relationship between photography and time?
NM: Fleeting yet lasting.
TNH: How far would you say the hope with your pieces is that they will be used forever or do you believe that upcycling is a process passed on to each generation and it will take on another form again in the future?
NM: Upcycling is less about permanence and more about evolution. It’s about constant action. I deconstruct almost everything I make to upcycle it into something else. If we’re looking for ways to help the environment, we should constantly be searching for solutions. With each project I make, I’m learning something new.
TNH: In society, the word sustainability is thrown around a lot and often regarded as a buzzword. But where do you hope to see the world in ten years time?
NM: If we’re talking about the importance of time, I think the focus should be on what is actionable now. Ten years can feel like a lifetime, but it’s also around the corner.
TNH: Can you think of a time when you were proud of something you’ve done?
NM: That sense of pride or accomplishment should be a part of your everyday. Life is hard; pandemics are beyond brutal. There are so many things out of our control, so we need to find ways to celebrate ourselves, no matter how small, like remembering to drink water. Hydration is important.
TNH: When you’re not designing, what else can we find you doing with your time?
NM: Sleeping is at the top of my list. But I’m also rock climbing, watching investigative crime tv, listening to music, and reading/educating myself on various random topics.
Images: (c) Polaroid, Courtesy of Polaroid and Nicole McLaughlin.