Upcycling Designer, Nicole McLaughlin (NM)
OS: Hello Nicole. It's such an honor to interview you. Please introduce yourself to our audience.
NM: Hi onymous! My name is Nicole McLaughlin, and I’m a designer focusing on sustainability through upcycling.
OS: You are well known as an upcycling designer. Please introduce us to what kind of work you do.
NM: Upcycling is taking materials — samples, second and used, waste- anything that people no longer see value in and imbuing it with new energy through functionality. Essentially, it’s getting another chance to be something rather than just throwing it in the trash.
OS: Sounds like a pretty interesting and socially meaningful job! How did you become an upcycling designer?
NM: While working at Reebok, I found myself around a lot of samples being thrown away, so I took them home and started experimenting. In the beginning, upcycling wasn’t the focus. I was a graphic designer with limited resources and little experience, so buying something new to cut up didn’t make sense. Using samples to create something gave me a glimpse into construction while I deconstructed and other valuable insights. It also removed a level of fear from working with something new and nice because these pieces were literally from the trash. Ultimately, it allowed me to see the potential in the materials and how I use them.
OS: There have already been many upcycling designers, but your works are going viral, gaining much more attention than the others. What do you think is the unique point that sets you apart from other previous upcycling designers?
NM: I take a tongue-in-cheek approach to my work, while leaning on my childhood nostalgia. I feel like that humor and fun resonates with people. Ultimately, it’s less about being buzzworthy and more about the conversations around what I do. People can talk about sustainability, a vast and complicated topic, and feel comfortable enough to wade into conversations about it. They’re made aware of the materials and the thought process behind them, and hopefully, they see it, are inspired, and try to upcycle on their own. Small steps, small victories.
OS: Maybe because you were a graphic designer, your social media pages seem to have a lot of visually interesting photos and videos. These witty posts seem to play a big role in making the heavy topic of upcycling approachable to the audience in a very friendly way. How were the videos and photos conceived?
NM: I got interested in videos and photography in high school. I met someone who is deaf, so I taught myself how to use American Sign Language. That required me to film myself, so I knew if I was doing it right, and my curiosity for visual media continued from there into university. I have a BS in Digital Media Technology. It gave me a general knowledge of media, like photography, videography, art, and graphic design. It’s given me a well-rounded point of view of the different types of fields I can apply this knowledge in my everyday life. It helps when doing creative work and crafting your visual identity.
OS: It seems that such a well-rounded ability influences your work as well. Functionally creative works such as a heel that pulls out the center of an apple, a napkin for recycling, and an air injector for a glove made of basketballs are great objects in themselves. But baking a marshmallow from a candle on your shoe, or squeezing a lemon with a bra-squeezer is so bold and witty that it could be regarded as performance art. Should we pay more attention to your performance or the physical product? What do you prefer to be called, designer or artist?
@upcycle campfire crocs #fyp #diy ♬ Campfire Song Song - Spongebob Squarepants
NM: One of the things that connect all these pieces is upcycling. They are created utilizing materials perceived to have limited or single functions. We need to push boundaries to ensure that the conversation is moving forward, whether it be funny or risque. So, I’m happy for people to make their assumptions about where my work sits in the diagram of art or performance art or designer, etc., as long as they don’t lose the meaning of it.
OS: Do you have any plans for opening an art exhibition in 2023? I think your work is really valuable and has more life to it than any other environmental art. Much environmental art tends to be boring or dreary, but yours aren't. Your flashing tongue-in-cheek videos that care about sustainability are clearly meaningful at the same time!
NM: I have some pieces on display at the Berman Museum in Philadelphia and will be part of an exhibition at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska later this fall. I’ll also have work on display at Cornell University this summer.
OS: Of course, the functional/performance content of your posts is great, but in fact, the aesthetics of the product are basically splendid. It seems that you love to use detailed parts such as pockets, zippers, and straps. Along with the element details, exaggerated silhouettes of your work fit perfectly with the current fashion trends! How do you refer to the recent fashion scenes of gorpcore and tech wears? What inspires you the most?
NM: I love a good pocket. I’ve always been inspired by the outdoors and the technology that goes into the materials, the trims, and the multi-functionality of it all. I’m inspired by many things, but the outdoors the most.
OS: Looking at your works, there are many brand logo plays besides functional pocket zippers. What are your thoughts on clothing brand logos? To your work, is it a visual-aesthetic usage, or do you want the original brand's intangible value to be projected?
I understand the strength of logos, and my graphic design background helps me play with their visual identity. So yes, there is some importance, but that’s not the only reason it’s there. A logo is inherently a part of the garment, and we should utilize every piece. But it’s also important to note how widely available certain brands are in thrift stores. Sportswear is ubiquitous in the second-hand market and has created its a multi-billion dollar industry through resale. There’s so much we see and what we don’t see, but there’s more than enough material, too much, to pull from to upcycle.
OS: It seems like you usually get materials from the thrift store, but you can't plan and buy second-hand products, can you? What criteria do you use when choosing a product? Do ideas pop out the moment you encounter an item?
I think if you wanted to, you could plan on how you buy second-hand products, but whether you get the exact thing you need is another story. A lot of the time, it’s the materials that are the inspiration behind what I do. They have an innate shape and construction that you gravitate towards. They are usually the starting point for me, before even a concept.
OS: Once the materials are decided, how are the works operated? What tools and skills do you use?
NM: I use whatever tools and skills I have! I’m not a trained designer, so everything I’ve learned has been through trial and error. I am constantly playing around with materials. I drape them over parts of my body to see what might work, playing around with colors and textures and seeing if they can support different materials that can aid in increasing functionality. So nothing is step-by-step; it’s all very open. But every project is a means to learn something new, and that’s how I look at everything I do.
OS: It sounds to be a very challenging and progressive story. Looking back, what do you think was the first piece that got you into upcycling? Tell us the story of the first attempt.
NM: I think any of my early pieces you see on IG, are first attempts at my ideas. I played around with tissue paper from shoeboxes that were hot glued, so that could technically be the start, but a lot of what I share are “first attempts.”
OS: It seems that your fresh "first attempts" have led to collaborations with Arc'teryx, Gucci, Puma and other big names. What was your experience like?
NM: It’s exciting to see brands interested in sustainability and the various ways they want to explore it. It’s all at varying levels, and you have to respect their approach, but I also try to push conversations forward to see if I can find opportunities to do more. I want to help provide perspective so they can see beyond a singular moment but also know that even with this one project, it’s a step in the right direction.
OS: Right. It really seems necessary to present a perspective on upcycling across the industry. What kind of project do you think would be good if you do another collaboration in the near future?
NM: I’d love to do something with furniture and automotive. I’d love to work with car manufacturers.
OS: What are your future goals? Will you be focusing on practicality, artistry, or sustainability?
NM: I’ll always be focused on sustainability, but I’d love to learn new skills like welding or furniture making to support that further. Having a more technical background in the assembly of machines is also something that intrigues me.
OS: What would you like to advise young artists & designers trying to make something new from existing products like you? Or someone who thinks about sustainability and design topics together.
NM: That you don’t need to have all the answers… It seems that people within the industry already have all the skills and knowledge, but in reality, many are learning as they go. No one is really an expert at everything. That perception hinders people from jumping into the fashion pool because they don’t have the right tools, but I learned that it’s a big misconception from the start. You can learn as you go; the better you get, the further you go.
OS: That sounds like a great word of encouragement to young creatives! Lastly, we, onymous, aim to prolong the product life cycle by producing timeless products in high quality, standard forms. Producing products with the user's own initials also serves as a lifetime brand in itself, reducing the risk of brand fads that can become boring. Our approach to sustainable value may be a bit different than yours, but how do you feel about extending the lifecycle of a product so that users can use it for a lifetime?
NM: It’s so important to be thinking about extending the life of products during the initial design process. We need to consider the circularity of whatever we’re making and take responsibility and accountability for it when it comes to the end of its life. What will happen to it? Can it be recycled? Can we upcycle it? All these things need to be incorporated into what we make if we’re hoping to make a positive impact in the future. A part of my process that many people are unaware of is that I deconstruct nearly everything I make as soon as I take a photo or video. Why? Because I’m not beholden to its permanence. If I’ve made it once, I can make it again. And probably better the second time around because of what I’ve learned. Through constant learning, I’m finding solutions to make my pieces better. I’m also looking to challenge myself. And by upcycling things multiple times—some pieces I’ve kept going for years—helps provide insight into the longevity of a material and how to extend its lifecycle.
*interview date: 2023.April.27
Nicole McLaughlin © 2023
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