ReFound, the Artistic Answer to the Big Society
Founder Jill O'Neill on bringing disused pieces of furniture back to life and giving artists some work on the side
It’s seldom in my life that I’ve had cause to think the following: 'I like furniture. I also like art. But which one’s best?' Rather than have form and function fight it out to the death, I could have approached Jill O’Neill for a happy resolution to such a quandary.
O'Neill is an entrepreneur who has married household functionality to aesthetic form to create a whole new brand of bespoke product - ReFound. In these austere times the next generation of designer furniture will be the reclaimed, reconstituted and redesigned, according to the ReFound manifesto.
It’s a premise so simple, so in tune with the times and so totally sellable that it seems it should have already been presented to a den of dragons. ReFound works like this: source unloved, second-hand goods (chairs, tables, pots, pans, stools, that sort of thing), assign talented artists to each piece and have them work their magic. Finally, showcase the revamped pieces in a pop-up shop.
O'Neill, who spent time working in New York with Spin Magazine in the 1990s after taking a degree in History of Art, says she was directly inspired by that city’s ethos of thrifty chic and creative fluidity when considering the concept of ReFound. 'Places like New York have that whole culture of the yard sale and buying interesting stuff second hand,' says O'Neill.
'There’s this inspiring sense of just going for something. For example, there’d be an empty shop space that might be claimed by skaters in the morning, they’d set up and spray paint it and by the evening, a knitting circle might have taken up residency. I love that sense of energy and community, and I suppose and the pop-up shop idea really taps into that.'
Dozens of Northern Irish and international artists including Liam DeFrinse, Miguel Martin, Anushiya Sunda, Jill Black and Philip Hammond have got behind the ReFound project already, transforming everyday objects and furniture items into artifacts unique, inspired or just simply beautiful.
The first ReFound pop-up shop took place in Belfast back in June 2010, in an empty retail site on the Castlereagh Road. It was a hugely successful affair, with 26 personalised pieces of ReFound product on display. Most of them sold by the end of the shop’s salutary run.
For O'Neill, however, it’s about more than simple commerce. 'When I came back to live in Belfast after university and working abroad, I found it quite a cliquey place as far as the 'art scene’ goes. I wanted to break with that and try to do something that wouldn’t frighten people off, but get them interested.'
On working with artists - a famously mercurial constituency - O'Neill is diplomatic: 'Well, it’s about managing expectation from all sides, really. When it comes to things like costing a piece there are so many factors to consider – the original value of the item, the scale of the work. Most of the artists I work with get the idea really quickly and came back with some amazing pieces.
'Coming up to a show it really feels like Christmas. You’re waiting to get the pieces back and you aren’t sure what’s going to turn up. It’s really hard to anticipate how an artist will transform a piece and I’m constantly surprised.
'For example, Donna Bates did something totally unexpected with an ordinary table. It became ‘Jackstraw’s Table’ (not to be confused with the former Labour politician) based on the Pick up Sticks game. I gave her six basic dining chairs to work on for the next ReFound - they were equally impressive.'
The work of Refound is as much about the crafty marketing of the brand as it is the craft of the finished products. The work itself clearly falls between several (unavoidable pun) stools. It’s not ‘art’ in a conceptual sense, but neither are the finished products examples of straight-laced practical furniture per se.
O'Neill adds: 'The pieces I originally source are what I would consider to be interesting blank canvases, I suppose. I stress that it’s not about altering the functionality of a piece. A chair will remain a chair, for example. But I think that ReFound offers people who are interested in having something beautiful and unique in their home just that.'
The second pop-up shop occurred in a shop space on Belfast's Belmont Road. Building on the success of the first venture, it was bigger and better, with more pieces and more artists involved than before. For O'Neill, the choice of venue is always essential to the process. 'The second space we found was amazing – it reminded us of the Old Curiosity Shop, so with the help of artist Kerry Hutchinson we did the place up in a real Dickensian style.
'There’s really three aims at the heart of ReFound. There’s the principle of recycling something and making it beautiful and unique. Second, there’s the promotion and marketing of the artists. We’re incredibly lucky to have so many talented artists taking part and if ReFound can help give them some sort of prominence or make their work better known that is great. The third principle is the regeneration of high streets through reclaiming empty spaces.'
ReFound could be the seamless synthesis of art, commerce and household furnishings - three of the five holy pillars of western society. Or it might shape up to be a poster-child designer-line for the 'Big Society'. On the other hand, it could turn out to be as cliquey as the Northern Irish art scene that O'Neill returned home to. But it is definitely ingenious. Understandably, O'Neill doesn’t want to stop at the deserted retail nooks of east Belfast.
'I’d like to do more pop-up shops across Northern Ireland, and we have one scheduled for Dublin,' she confirms. 'I’d also like to get people doing it for themselves, set up workshops and classes and enable others to get into the ReFound project. But eventually,' she says, revealing the true extent of her ambition, 'I’d like ReFound to become a noun. As in, "Oh, that table is a ReFound".'
The next scheduled ReFound events take place on March 6 at The Retro Rooms Vintage Fair, Holiday Inn Belfast and April 3-6 at Irish Furniture and Accessories Fair, RDS, Dublin. Check out the ReFound website for information on future Pop-up Shop events.