Salvage is no longer the preserve of rough-and-ready rag and bone yards, but a thriving aspect of modern interior design with built-in conservation and eco credentials, writes Carol O’Callaghan.
London is one of those places perfect for a quick trip to do a bit of clothes shopping and catch a West End show, but have you ever looked at its interior life?
There are high-profile areas like Chelsea Harbour and events like the London Festival of Design, and even the irresistible lure of a browse along Marylebone High Street for accessories, but in little enclaves away from the centre are surprising finds like Retrouvius.
To call it architectural salvage is to give the impression of a yard filled with Victorian garden gates and piles of roof slates, rather than a carefully curated selection of everything from industrial chic and shop fittings, to wooden cinema seating and stocks of mahogany cupboards salvaged from the Natural History Museum.
Located on the busy Harrow Road in North West London, it sits between junk shops and Brazilian cafés in an area which has, so far, escaped gentrification; where everything is unexpected, including the layout of the building and its warren of spaces over several floors.
In each are items which might have otherwise been slung out; where you might find science laboratory taps or an antique optometrist’s table waiting to be repurposed in one of the Retrouvius’ owners’ interior design projects, maybe even including a collection of dinky upholstered chairs I came across on a visit and which I lamented wouldn’t fit in my suitcase, nor ever sit around my table.
My consolation prize was the discovery that owners Adam Hills and Maria Speak have written a book, Reclaiming Style (Ryland Peters Small), documenting how they got into the business, what they look for and how it all translates into their interior design projects which include a surprising variety of homes: An apartment in London’s Barbican, a medieval priory, family townhouse and Victorian villa are just a few chosen to appear in the book, but they illustrate the scope for the inclusion of things which were previously used.
It all started over 20 years ago when they were studying architecture in Glasgow and made a particular observation, Adam explains.
“My first eureka moment was when I realised that, because the West End of Glasgow is very homogenous architecturally, you could remove the doors and shutters and fireplaces from a building that Glasgow University was demolishing and use them in a building two or three streets away and they would fit, physically and historically.”
This was the start of Retrouvius, later developing into the salvaging of things like church pews, pub fittings and stained-glass windows. But it was a move to London in 1997 which provided the opportunity to offer an interior design service based on using what they sold in their warehouse.
There’s also quite a bit of lateral thinking in their approach. Some snooker tables which would have been difficult to sell whole were sold in parts. Slate components, for example, made countertops. Marble walls with gilt lettering are now repurposed in the kitchen of an interior design project .
But building materials form another part of the business, thanks to Adam and Maria’s ability to spot something of practical and aesthetic value. Adam acquired 200 tons of Derbyshire fossil limestone when Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport was demolished. Some of this can now be seen in interiors projects in the book. “A lot of people would look at something like Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 and think that because it’s a hideous building there can’t be anything valuable inside it,” he explains.
“Whereas, in fact, you can go inside a bit of Brutalist architecture and look up the stairs and realise that the handrail is made out of a solid piece of hardwood, or that there’s an incredible floor or interesting light fittings.
Relationships with demolition contractors mean a source of stock of these materials, where Adam has been known to walk onto building sites just as demolition is about to start and might be allowed a tiny window of opportunity to remove what he wants. It’s all part of a dislike of waste on his and Maria’s part, and their appreciation of something well made which deserves a second chance. Adam sums it up beautifully, “[to] take something from where it’s not appreciated to somewhere that it is”.
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With so much spring yellow and green around, let's look at alternative colour trends in this cushion selection from M&S.
The watercolour Bird cushion has an artistic painterly quality to the pattern with soft blue and pink detailing, making it a lovely choice for bedrooms (€32).
The monochrome and often stark black and white combination is softened by grey accents and a mix of angles and curves in the pattern of the Kilim cushion (€22)
For a traditional look, the Ornamental cushion with embroidering detailing is finished in taupe and cream against a vintage style faded pink background (€32).
Taupe and charcoal are an on-trend pairing for a contemporary look. Picture the Block striped cushion against neutral upholstery (€15).