An interview with Willem Heeffer- the upcycler who brought us can lights and drum lamps

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Willem Heeffer is a designer that I first discovered via his work for Hans Välimäki’s Midhill Restaurant in Helsinki, Finland. The restaurant is decorated from floor to ceiling with Willem’s signature work the Heinz Beanz Can. 334 upcycled cans to be precise. Just recently Willem’s been in the Upcycling limelight again with his ‘Clean Conscious’ lamps made from Upcycled washing machine drums. I asked Willem about his thoughts on the Upcycling movement and the Upcycling landscape in Finland where he is based, and in The Netherlands where he come from.

Willem Heeffer Can Light Willem Heeffer Upcycling In HelsinkiHello Willem, please introduce yourself!

Hello I am Willem. I design spaces and objects from my desk and enjoy realizing the designs in the workshop. When I work I listen a lot to Dublin 98Fm as one of the great Irish traits is their ability to make fun of themselves and get on with it no matter what. I believe good design is mindful design. Ecology and ethics should form and integral part of this. Not only up cycling but also recycling, cradle to cradle, sustainable design and reuse (even though they have all a slight different meaning) are all part of this same cause.

What is Upcycling to you?

To take an existing object which has served its purpose and transform it to something new which can be enjoyed again. For me this means that when I work with old materials I have to take them out of context, use it in an unexpected way to create something new. The goal is to first see a beautiful product after which you discover the history behind it. Only then the products are no longer viewed as trash and have become design pieces.

Campbells Can Light By Willem HeefferI feel that there is still some confusion regarding the difference between recycling and upcycling.  I often see the word ‘Recycled’ used to describe what I would call Upcycled. How would you describe the difference?

Recycling brakes down the materials to be remade into something new. With up cycling you don’t break it down but “simply” give it a new use.

When did you first hear about Upcycling and when did you start upcycle yourself?

I have always been interested in ready made products. The most famous example is “Fontaine” from Marcel Duchamp. (Porcelain urinal exhibited as art) It is an ordinary manufactured object which is modified by the artist, taken out of context and musealised.  A different example are the concrete drain pipes which are turned into hotel rooms for Dasparkhotel. I think there are a lot of designs sold as up cycling which are in fact “ready mades” and can by no means be called sustainable. I think an important overlooked criteria for up cycling is that the object you use must have served its purpose, it is at the end of its life, before you up-cycle it.

Washing Machine Drum LampsYou moved to Finland from the Netherlands via Ireland in 2011, how is the Upcycling scene in Finland?

I think up cycling is seen as something anyone can do and they are right. Anyone can and should do it but it takes a lot more effort to make it look smoking hot. I think Finland has a good scene of designers who are responsible towards the environment but up cycling as a business is not an easy model as it is often labor intensive and the quantities are relatively small.

The Netherlands have some early Upcyclers to be proud of. I am thinking about Tejo Remy and Piet Hein Eek, profiles that helped to define the term Upcycling. We also see new names like yours from the Netherlands established in the forefront of Upcycling. Except for the interest in Dutch design in general, do you see a reason why Upcycling is taking off in The Netherlands?

Product design takes a lot of hard work; making drawings, prototypes and sourcing materials to take it to the next level. This is the same for up cycling. In the time of mass consumption and short lifespan of products we are looking for products with more meaning and a story or history. I think that Tejo and Piet precisely gave this to their objects and therefore got recognized. These designers show the reason and the process of how an object is made, this gives a good understanding of the product and will form a much stronger bond and connection.  This is also animportant part of my work.

Willem Heeffer Drum LampHow did you get the idea to Upcycle washing machine drums?

I am not the first having a go at the washing machine drum. We used to do them when I was working for a design office in Dublin. I always thought they still resembled to much of a waste product. They had not transformed enough for them to become design lamps. I powder coated them, gave them matching colored cable, an acrylic disk to diffuse the light and hung them from 1mm steel cables. And I hope this rebirth was successful.

Where do you source your material and what type of material do you prefer to work with?

Sourcing materials is not too hard but getting bigger volumes of the exact same parts proves difficult. It is hard to source materials as all companies including recycling companies follow such a strict guidelines. What we do with our waste is very regulated which is good but it works against me sometimes. But overtime more and more people start taking this serious and are willing to help me even if it means bending the rules a bit. I am now active two years in Helsinki and have build up some great contacts. However I would like to know more about which companies produce what type of waste so I could use this in my designs.

Willem Heffeer Drum Lamp Pink How do you use up cycling in your interiors?

My interiors are often a mixture of up cycling, recycling and some high end design pieces. Instead of throwing everything out I see if there are pieces of furniture we can reuse in some way or another. I often custom design light features or furniture to suit the exact needs of my clients. I want my interiors to look sheike and need while staying true to my ethos.

Do you think upcycling is the future?

Of course this is a very important part of living in a sustainable way but according to Christopher Barnatt we should be careful thinking that this is the only solution. “We can choose to go about our business more sustainably, and this is a laudable goal but it’s a myth to think that we can continue the way we live as we do now but in a sustainable fashion. Rather than striving toward sustainability, we should start focusing on how we can least painfully deconstruct our consumer society and transition to a world in which we consume things less and value things more. Only a few generations ago it was normal to purchase products intended to last a lifetime, and which were frequently repaired. In bizarre contrast, today it is not uncommon for people to still be paying for things that they have long since been discarded.”- Christopher Barnatt

Washing Machine Drum Light

What expert tips can you give to them that want to try Upcycling themselves?

Look at other examples and get inspired as there are plenty of nice things you can do with simple house hold waste and using simple tools.

Thank you Willem! I want to add here that I am happy that you brought up upcycling’s similarity with ready-mades and that we sometimes forget the essence of upcycling that is that the item must have lived its life all ready. I am also excited that you mentioned ‘The Sustainability Myth’ and would love to open up a discussion on that. I believe and hope, that voices and ideas that call for abolishment of consumer society will be given more room in media and once that happens the idea to deconstruct consumer society wont appear as all to strange. Then, anything can happen. Thanks again for the chat Willem!

See more of Willems Upcycled products here. We wish Willem all luck with his forthcoming projects!

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