Waste not, make art: Exploring the quirky upcycled works of Nicole McLaughlin

American designer Nicole McLaughlin discusses the importance of upcycling as a design process, which is an integral part of her art practice.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Oct 07, 2021

‘Upcycling’ is a term that is finding greater footing in the English lexicon of late. It refers to the retooling of unwanted or waste products, generally with an aim to make them ergonomic with a new use in mind. However, while upcycling is first and foremost a product of design thinking, it does also straddle the art world, and in many cases, gives rise to both: intelligent design that may also be viewed as an artistic artefact. The quirky and colourful works of New York-based designer, Nicole McLaughlin, perfectly illustrate this, and perhaps much of the seamlessness with which she blends art and design comes from the self-taught nature of her practice. Discussing her beginnings as a designer, she tells STIR, “My creative journey doesn't follow a straight path. I went to university to study speech pathology and neurology and got into photography and graphic design. After I graduated, I got an internship at Reebok, and while I was there, I started experimenting with the waste and samples they threw away. I am not a trained designer by any means, but I enjoyed experimenting, and through every failed attempt, I learned something new and got better.” McLaughlin decided to pursue upcycling as a practice out of a sense of necessity, as she was very short on money and could not afford to buy materials. She taught herself how to maximise everything she had, developing an understanding of even the most basic aspects of her craft, such as sewing, as she went along.

A vest made out of discarded Hermes bags; one may locate a clear and relevant sense of utilitarianism here | Nicole McLaughlin | STIRworld
A vest made out of discarded Hermes bags; one may locate a clear and relevant sense of utilitarianism here Image: Nicole McLaughlin

McLaughlin explains, “The beauty and challenge of upcycling is finding ways to use what you have to the nth degree. There is no end game, so you can reuse the same materials repeatedly without having to recycle them.” With this in mind, upon approaching her work, one begins to appreciate how many times she must have retooled certain pieces, and what sort of robust creative mindset this process has undoubtedly fostered. The perception develops that each of the designer’s pieces are composed of parts, that come together and can be taken apart, to be reconfigured in innumerable fascinating ways. McLaughlin continues, “My work highlights sustainability, and through it, I try to change people's perception of waste. It's about showing the potential an item possesses that many might not see. The materials I use are often discarded, readily available in thrift stores, or sometimes found around the house. Sometimes I'll have an idea and look for something specific, but most of the time, the materials themselves help dictate what they'll become.” 

Fries | Nicole McLaughlin | STIRworld
Fries Image: Nicole McLaughlin

The artist mentions that she tries to combine fun and functionality within her work. This, in a sense, runs parallel to the artistic as well as design-centric aspects of her practice, which may be read from either or both angles simultaneously. McLaughlin tells STIR that the light-hearted and quirky nature of some of her pieces help people who are not sensitised to the idea of upcycling, approach the concept in a way that is inviting as opposed to alienating or heavy-handed. She continues, saying “The functional aspect provides insight to those curious about what one can do with waste. A lot of my stuff is unexpected in a sense but also familiar. Often, the pieces are easily recognisable but altered to reveal a new sense of usefulness.” An issue one might take with McLaughlin’s work is that it is difficult to locate the real-world ergonomic utility of some pieces. A perfect example of this is her Fries, which is admittedly hilarious in its absurdity. Or, take her Sandwich Shorts, which some might even place into the category of ‘Chindogu’; referring to the Japanese design practice of creating design solutions that may cause more issues than they resolve. However, the wider oeuvre of the designer is nonetheless highly engaging, and certain to spark ideas within the minds of those who engage with it. In many ways, what is presented here is an excellent introduction to the practice of upcycling, but hardly an example of that same practice pinned down to a science. McLaughlin’s work is meant to be engaged with in the same jovial, light-hearted manner that it was created in.

A charger-shoe combination that calls for a very large length of cord | Nicole McLaughlin | STIRworld
A charger-shoe combination that calls for a very large length of cord Image: Nicole McLaughlin

The designer encourages other to follow her example and begin their own experiments and forays into upcycling. She says, “I hope those who see it are inspired to start making on their own. I didn't know how to sew when I started all this, but now I do. Don't let small obstacles stop you from trying.” She continues, addressing larger organisations, saying “The bigger hope is to see upcycling utilised within all industries. We have so much waste in landfills. Instead of making new products all the time, we need to start looking at what we already have.” This is a concern several entities, from independent practitioners to watchdog organisations have raised, and one hopes that multinationals take note of the work of McLaughlin and others like her, and if nothing else, imbibe the central spirit presented here. As of now, the designer’s work is certainly being engaged with widely in the art world, with McLaughlin having shown at the Design Museum in London, MAD Brussels and Barns Art Center as well. Additionally, major media outlets such as VICE have picked up on McLaughlin’s practice and have also interviewed her. She expresses a sense of pleasant surprise at the audience engagement she has found, and a measure of joy at the prospect of working with other like-minded creatives.

Staycation | Nicole McLaughlin| STIRworld
Staycation Image: Nicole McLaughlin

There is a certain sense of immediacy that undercuts the mirth of McLaughlin’s work, which the designer highlights, “The ideas that shaped sustainability have been around for centuries, but what it stands for presently is a movement of urgency. There are two outcomes to where this is going: Corporations and governments either decide that the planet and its people are worth more than their profits, and drastically reduce their carbon emissions, or we continue to see more of what is on the news—fire, earthquakes, flooding, mass extinction, etc.” On a sombre note, she adds, “The latter is not pretty, but unfortunately, that's the path we are currently on.”  

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