The Living Furniture Project: Recycling Furniture, Employing the Homeless

Furniture produced by Donna Walker & the Living Furniture Project

Furniture range produced by Donna Walker & The Living Furniture Project

Just before Christmas I was contacted by a lovely guy called Alastair Sloan who wanted to tell me all about a project he is currently working on as he thought it might be of interest for me and for you guys, my readers. Well I’m not sure about you, but this is most certainly the kind the thing that I love to write about and I was only too pleased to include it here on my blog. It’s a truly worthwhile project and I really respect what Alastair is trying to achieve here and the way he is going about it. But instead of me trying to explain it to you, I’ll let Alastair tell you all about it himself in this video that features an interview Alastair did on Radio Shoreditch in February. And then once you get the general gist you can read the the interview that I have done with him about The Living Furniture Project.

The Living Furniture Project – Interview with founder Alastair Sloan on Shoreditch Radio from Alastair Sloan on Vimeo.

What is your background and how did you come up with the idea for The Living Furniture Project?

My background is in marketing – I worked for some fairly large manufacturing companies, launching household products in the UK and then all over the world. It was a great experience and I got to see the power that business can have to transform people’s lives in a very direct way. One of the businesses I managed had a factory in Belgium that employed 250 disabled people to manufacture a huge proportion of our products – so this got me thinking about how you could harness business in a positive way.

Can you tell us about the project?

It’s about making beautiful furniture, which allows us to create jobs for homeless people and get them off the streets. We’re using old furniture that we upcycle, or reclaimed materials from constructions sites. I’m writing this next to about half a tonne of scaffolding planks which are just about to get turned into gorgeous coffee tables. I’ve also brought in top-class designers to create each piece – I love design and the aesthetic of what we produce is incredibly important.

Furniture by Donna Walker

Designer Maker Donna Walker is working with The Living Furniture Project

Why is the issue of homelessness one that you particularly wanted to get involved with?

The mindblowing stat for me is that the life expectancy of a homeless person in the UK is just 47 years. For me, that’s an average of 30 years that are being taken away from you, because of the chaotic lifestyle of being on the streets and because society isn’t doing enough to help.

Charities (not the government), do a fantastic job of fixing people when it comes to the problems typically faced by homeless people – drugs, alcohol, mental health issues – but most homeless people hit a glass ceiling when it comes to getting back into employment. That means they often struggle to rejoin mainstream society and kick around in hostels and on welfare for a long time.

There’s a stigma amongst employers about homelessness, and I want to challenge this stigma – I see people who have recovered from street living, or drug or alcohol addiction, as a huge opportunity for the economy (and for the individuals themselves). If you’ve spent time on crack or heroin, or drinking every day, or just walking the streets with nothing to do, and you manage to get out of this cycle – then you’re seeing the world in full Technicolour and surround sound. My Apprentices love it, they want to work hard and get on, and they’re fantastic, committed employees..

You work with two homeless charities, Providence Row and Crisis, to help tackle homelessness. Is it through them that you find the apprentices?

Yes it is. Both are fantastic and they do some incredible work helping homeless people in London. My workshop is actually based on-site at Providence Row.

Furniture by Nic Parnell

Craftsman and designer Nic Parnell is now working with The Living Furniture Project

Where do you source the unwanted furniture from?

It depends – we’ve had plenty of donations which is fantastic. But if it’s a commissioned piece, we will go out and find pieces specifically for customers, and then restore them to their spec. We also collect scaffolding from building sites – lots of scaffolding companies cut fresh wood for each new build and then throw out the whole lot once the construction is complete. A lot of the foreman I speak to are keen to reverse this trend, especially as 50% of their waste is going straight into landfill.

How do you choose the high profile furniture makers that you work with on the project?

We are playing at the top end of the market – this is luxury upcycling and bespoke furniture. Everyone has a strength – Geoff Walker has 26 years of experience in carpentry and furniture design, working with reclaimed wood. Nic Parnell has a unique interpretation of using sustainable materials – he’s all about mixing up your expectations on what something should look or feel like. Donna Walker is an incredible instructor and has a whole range of brilliantly quirky upcycling ideas – check out her Windows Series chairs which we are now producing in the Living Furniture Project workshop. Yinka Ilori combines Nigerian influences with a healthy sense of humour – not many designers would combine a lampshade with a chair. Lee White is one of the guys behind Robots, an incredible sculpture installation group who work with reclaimed materials. You might have seen some of their work clambering up the side of the Hayward Gallery and now we’re developing a sofa made out of old Victorian doors. And we’ve also got Katrina Wight, who is an ex-Laura Ashley pattern designer. She’s discovered a unique way to re-use envelopes and we’re developing a cool geometric surface design that you’ll start to see across our work in the near future. Finally, there’s Sarah Baulch who runs Revampt and English Eccentric, both very successful upcycling brands. Sarah makes stunning patchworks, and has just taught our guys how to make beautiful cushions and also a new deckchair that we’re working on.

Upcycled textiles by Sarah Baulch

Upcycling expert and designer Sarah Baulch is now working with The Living Furniture Company

You sought to crowdfund the project through What will the money raised be used for?

We raised £3000 successfully via Sponsume – it was a unique and often tricky experience, and if anyone wants any tips on how to succeed, more than happy to help out!

Where will people be able to buy the furniture that is produced by the apprentices?

You can buy directly from us, but also you’ll catch us at all the big exhibitions and shows throughout 2013.

Stool by James McBennett

James McBennett, co-founder of Fabsie is now working with The Living Furniture Project

How will this project help the homeless furniture apprentices turn their lives around?

For our employees, it’s as much about building their confidence, as it is about getting the money they need for a flat. Living off benefits and charity can knock you back and I’m saying to these guys that I believe in them and that I’m going to pay and train them to make some beautiful furniture. That’s a positive step forward in their lives. I’m not saying that this is going to be all they need to get back on an even keel, but so far we’ve had a brilliant response from everyone we’ve employed and we’re heavily over-subscribed for positions.

How can people get involved if they want to help?

We are always on the look-out for volunteers – be it in the workshop mentoring a homeless employee or in the office with sales, marketing etc. Drop me an email at

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