Furniture upcycling is one of the hottest DIY trends ― old doors gaining new life as tabletops or headboards, ladders as bookshelves, bathtubs turned into sofas, best described as ‘repurposed furniture’.
It appeals to people on all different levels: the arts and crafts moms have a project to add to Pinterest, the too-cool-for-Ikea crowd gain a one-off conversation piece, the cost-conscious need only apply some elbow grease along with a healthy dose of creativity and friends of the Earth can sleep well knowing that they’ve salvaged something otherwise destined for a landfill somewhere.
Enter the Pallet Project Saigon, a home-based partnership between housemates Janel Orbida and Steve Laughlin repurposing pallets into one-of-a-kind, functional pieces decorated by both established and up-and-coming artists.
Down a quiet lane in District 2, the friends share a house with creative types. There’s a language teacher, an artist, and the founders of Green Youth Collective, a training project that aims to enhance environmental sustainability by installing organic gardens on unused rooftop and wall space around HCMC. Add to that the musician, artist and passionately vegan friends (the home Wi-Fi is named “Hippies House”) that come in and out and the creativity flows through the space like electricity.
“It started out by us buying pallets to use as bed frames,” says Janel, a dreadlocked reggae and funk musician from the Philippines who oozes a laid back vibe. “Pallets are so multipurpose. You can build anything with them. It’s a cheaper way of making furniture, a cheaper solution. It lasts long enough, surviving the wear and tear of a few years of staying in a house.”
Some of the pallets also got made into a coffee table which friends took to doodling on. A year later and the unvarnished table is still there, every inch covered in colorful swirls, cartoons and messages. The idea for Pallet Project Saigon was born.
“In the Philippines, I was into recycling, not really for environmental reasons but more for repurposing. I made upcycled lamps and worked for an NGO making bags out of tarpaulin-like billboard material. I liked the idea of taking something that’s been used but using it again for a different purpose. My background in making and designing stuff came just the same as my music; it came by ear.”
The other half of the duo is Steve Laughlin, a UK electrician by trade.
“I started out as an apprentice and got stuck with all the sh!t that no one else wanted to do, working with brickies, chippies, tackers… So I’ve been around a lot of trades,” laughs Steve, the more environmentally-minded of the two.
“Over the last five years, I’ve become more interested in permaculture and sustainable living… Just because the world is going a bit wrong at the moment and there’s got to be something we can do. In Vietnam, nothing gets wasted; they reuse everything. It’s a much better way of doing things instead of throwing away something with a little bit of a stain or a scratch; that seems so wasteful.”
Together, the two have merged their construction and design backgrounds, sharing the work of selecting the pallets and carting them home on the backs of motorbikes then sanding and trimming to prepare them for the artists before finally varnishing and adding coasters and a glass top.
“We thought that it was really good that we could build these tables, but it would be so much nicer if we could collaborate with other people to give our artist friends another canvas (or pallet) to work on,” says Steve.
“We give the artists free rein; that’s the one thing we don’t like to have a say in. The designs are unique to that one table. Sometimes they’ll tell us ahead of time what they’re going to do, sometimes not. Some just make it up as they go. That means for each piece, there’s just one. We want the artist to see it as a 3D canvas,” with the artist getting the larger share of the proceeds.
So far, the artists have used acrylic paint, spray paint, ink and even a soldering iron to create a host of designs based on nature, portraits or more abstract concepts. “It’s an art piece you can use,” adds Janel.
What began as mainly a side project has now gained traction among the Saigon community. “We wanted to do something ― instead of just working and being… something we both enjoyed and liked. It’s been great to see interest in the project,” says Steve.
“At our first showing, we took three tables and our catalog. We didn’t expect to sell anything. We just wanted to see what the reaction was and if people would take any of our cards. But then we sold all three and thought: ‘We can do this. Let’s make another batch!’”
The pair look to continue using pallets but branching out into other designs and types of furniture, all the while giving new life to old wood.
* Images by Ngoc Tran.