It’s been any number of things: a solicitor’s office, a dentist's surgery, a private home, a hotel and restaurant. After it ceased to be any of these, it sat derelict for a decade in Belfast’s city centre, a stone's throw from City Hall, home to squatters both human and pigeon, whose refuse has taken months to clear out.
In a way, the ReFound Building, which is opening to the public on Thursday, September 20 at 6pm, is an apt metaphor for the business it now houses. ReFound’s modus operandi is to take cast-off-but-still-useful pieces of furniture, redesign, rework and rejunenvate them and sell them on. The building that forms ReFound’s new permanent home, which is located 7 Wellington Place, is its biggest DIY project of all.
Founder Jill O’Neill has spent months creating a showroom and studio spaces (the plan is to rent them to artists with a similar ethos for sustainable creativity) from the smoke-and-water-damaged property, getting through a century and a half of paint and varnish to the beautiful floorboards, the Georgian mouldings, the original features.
As she has worked, O'Neill has learned about the provenance of the building, so much so that she’s set up a wall in the entrance explaining the building’s history. 'It feels like the building is telling us its story,' she beams.
O'Neill's and ReFound's backstory is no less interesting. O'Neill left Northern Ireland at 19 for university in Glasgow and kept traveling, eventually ending up in New York and San Francisco, before settling in London. A visit back to Belfast to buy an investment property led her to a city in the midst of a renaissance, a hometown she barely recognized.
'I don't know what had changed,' she says. 'I noticed there was a real buzz and a real difference about Belfast. I just felt there was stuff happening. It was an interesting place to be again.'
That buzz proved intoxicating and left O’Neill determined to become involved. She attended the Go For It business development program with an eye toward opening a café or a restaurant. It would be filled with vintage furniture, mismatched crockery and give off a lived-in, cosmopolitan feel.
'Then Made in Belfast opened up and I was like, "Uhhhh",' she laughs. 'I realized that actually I was not that interested in the food part. What I liked was the residue, the things you sit on and that you look at.'
So with that realization and a few pieces of banged-up furniture that she'd bought in markets and car boot sales, O’Neill set out to make connections with Northern Irish artists and designers who could rework the pieces according to her antique aesthetic.
The first ReFound pop-up shop opened in June of 2010 and was well enough received that O'Neill opened another, and then another. She has since attracted an unlikely crew of artists, such as acclaimed composer Philip Hammond, who are always on hand give this footstool or that coffee table a new lease of life.
O'Neill enjoyed the challenge of a pop-up: of taking a raw space and refurbishing it cheaply with whatever materials were available, then setting it loose on the world for a finite period of time. Within a few years, however, the success of the business meant that she was ready to settle into a more permanent space.
'When we found this place in March 2012 we decided we were ready to stay, especially because it was so beautiful,' she recalls. 'You test, test, test a market, build a fan base and then you go, "Right, I'm ready". It was a natural progression, and for me that worked well because I've been building it up slowly.'
The pieces in her new showroom run the gamut from coffee tables made of recycled wooden pallets, to whimsical chairs recovered in a myriad of fabric swatches, to portable builders’ lights refashioned into industrial, minimalist chandeliers. The thing that unites the pieces, according to O'Neill, is their individuality.
'A lot of people really treasure these pieces because they're totally bespoke. They love the stories behind what the artists have done and what they've thought about,' says O'Neill. 'All of the pieces are meant to be usable as well as being creative and nice in design, but a lot of people are buying them to treasure and to be a feature piece in the home, and that's what they're meant for.'
The ReFound Building launches on Thursday, September 20 at 6pm. It is located at 7 Wellington Place, Belfast. Visit the ReFound website for more information.