Working with Salvaged and Reclaimed Materials

With over twenty years experience rescuing, trading and designing with salvage, Retrouvius is perfectly placed to offer essential advice on how best to work with old and reclaimed materials in the home.

How does Retrouvius work with salvaged materials?

We use old and salvaged materials, which are precious either for the craftsmanship, or the use of materials such as tropical hardwood or re-conditioned vintage textiles, which are used in a contemporary way. Increasingly we use materials in a way so that they can be used again – clients often take their salvaged pieces with them when they move. People seem to appreciate scuffs and patina, rather than making reclaimed materials look like a new piece.

One recent example would be working with a significant quantity of limestone from the exterior of an early 1950’s building in central London. This indigenous, fossil-rich stone was originally quarried from the same Derbyshire location as the stone that Retrouvius salvaged from Terminal 2 Airport, and was also used at Chatsworth House and the Royal Festival Hall.

It epitomises 1950s modern British architecture and Retrouvius were keen to work with it in various projects, where it has been used as flooring, wall cladding, splash blacks and surrounds. Rich in crinoid fossils and sea creatures, this iconic stone gives varying warm tones, which make it ideal for interiors re-use.

What is the advantage of working with reclaimed materials?

It immediately gives a comforting and worn-in aesthetic. Reclaimed materials are also incredibly hardwearing and resilient, perfect for family homes. Materials often have an unusual or compelling provenance and can be used again and again.

What are the limitations?

Your imagination. The supply is a big limitation and also what’s available on the market. It’s best to buy things you like, as they become available, if you can.

If you use too much salvage it can look a bit old-fashioned, in the same way as if you had filled your home with antiques, which is why Retrouvius prefer to mix it with modern design. If something were typically used as a flooring, Retrouvius would try to subvert it and run it up the wall, to give a fresh aesthetic and to modernise the reclaimed materials.

salvaged materials

Hallway with reclaimed wood paneling from an army barrack, wall hooks and hand-cut brick flooring ideal for under floor heating. Salvaged door with stained glass.

Are there any disadvantages?

The hidden costs: the extra labour, cleaning and installing – but you can get round that by doing your homework.
Research additional costs before you buy and view in person before you buy. If you’re not sure, take along your builder or contractor to view it. If you work with flooring, you need to condition the timber before it is laid.

It’s easy to get drawn into the low material costs but you have to deal with the add-on costs. Make sure you get quotes in advance, for example with parquet, to scrape off the parquet and re-lay it. It’s not always the cheapest option but it is something unique and of a high quality.

Is it possible to use salvage in a contemporary way?

Using traditional and familiar materials with an unexpected approach and with a contemporary language, such as parquet in modern patterns and continue up a wall in an unexpected way, or taking the same material (such as limestone or parquet) and using it several times within the same project with different treatments.

salvaged materials

Vintage lighting and reclaimed wood surfaces contrast with contemporary tiles. Reclaimed science lab work top. Island made from an adapted museum display unit from Ashmolean, Oxford.

Where is the best place to look for reclaimed/salvage pieces?

Taste is always changing, so there’s always going to be salvage. We recommend salvo as a portal for all reputable UK dealers.

Can you describe how salvaged materials such as wooden flooring or doors, could be transformed into worktops, benches, tables or shelving?

Science laboratory tops were built from hardwood timber, which can be used in its salvaged condition, or sanded back, waxed and oiled, to form a resilient work surface that needs very little treatment. However if you are working with our reclaimed limestone, it comes in widths of 35 or 45cm, so there’s no need to cut it down, as it limits its re-use in the future, and working with it as is, also saves on costs.

Is there a particular style, or type of antique that is particularly sought after?

The important thing about antiques or salvaged materials is that they don’t devalue, whereas new furniture can often devalue very quickly. So long as you are happy with the price and you are happy with the product, you can’t really go wrong.

salvaged materials

Curated selection of factory lighting, Ernest Race rocking chair from a collaboration between shoe designer Tracey Neuls, Ernest Race and Retrouvius and vintage fireplace sourced from the Retrouvious warehouse.

Describe some of the challenges of working with listed buildings?

This brings a new set of challenges and is best suited to working with an architect and to get expert advice. Working on a Grade 1 listed 16th century Suffolk priory, which was part of the Historical Buildings Association, the builders were not allowed to drill into the structure or put any cabling on the wall. Furniture is loose-fit and can’t be attached to the walls, as there is no structural alteration allowed, so we used ceiling pendants and standing lamps. The solution was to work with fabrics and textiles to create architectural spaces, and Maria Speake (head of design at Retrouvius) chose to work with a variety of fabrics from her textile archive, including vintage Hungarian linens and Indian silks.

salvaged materials

Contemporary textiles revive these vintage chairs and make a sharp contrast to the industrial lighting, reclaimed storage door and school science laboratory and bespoke tops table made from the same material.

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