Shaun Brownell hates waste. He doesn’t see himself as a “recycling fiend” or even as especially sustainability-minded, but as an aeronautical engineer he simply doesn’t like waste. It’s this kernal that lies at the heart of what is fast becoming an upcycled furniture empire in an assuming corner of south-east England.
Don’t replace. Repair, restore and recreate.Shaun Brownell
The worst waste to Shaun is the “throwaway society” we live in. Seeing cheap, modern chairs discarded by the side of the road led Shaun to realise that no one was throwing away old chairs: chairs made by traditional means and with high-quality, hard woods; and Shaun’s engineering brain started to work. By learning and mastering these time-tested techniques, Shaun began to craft items made to last, out of items that had already lasted!
But it’s Shaun’s imagination, combined with his attention to detail, that really enables his pieces to transcend being mere upcycled furniture.
When it comes time to source textiles for his reupholstery, what better fabric to use than those we might wear ourselves?! And rather than just upcycling otherwise unused clothes, Shaun’s designs revel in their past lives: keeping their forms and shapes as shirts, jackets, coats and ties, and in many cases, keeping their personality too.
Shaun designs and creates his eclectic pieces on the Sussex Coast where he founded RhubarbChairs.com to further explore his unique take on recycled furniture and upcycled upholstery.
When trying to explain why we love Shaun’s work so much, it might help to consider some key examples.
Take The Hussars, named for the 11th Hussars Regiment. The underlying chair is a sound example of a late-Victorian, mahogany hall chair; simple, handsome clean lines with original, restored brass wheel castors. It’s traditional and – thanks to Shaun’s restoration – in good condition. But with the upholstery, Shaun has layered the chair with a whole, other, contemporary history: that of an elite British cavalry regiment, from whom Shaun has sourced a vintage officer’s tunic, complete with original globe buttons, golden appliqué and frogging. Not only that, but he’s paired the tunic with a faux leopard skin fabric seat cover, mimicking the Hussar’s traditional saddle cloth.
And it all works.
Undeniably, there’s a lot going on. Some might call it “Mix-and-Match”; The Hussars plays into the Maximalist trend as much as it does the Boho resurgence with its characterful eclecticism. In some hands these design trends can become overwhelming or confused, but what makes Shaun’s creations so exciting is their underlying coherence despite superficial contradiction, their deep-seated sense of history, Shaun’s attention to detail… and their unifying sense of surreal fun!
An example of the lengths Shaun will go to for his creations is the The Royal Couple: a pair of another military-inspired chairs for which Shaun scoured country, eventually tracking down a pair of original, vintage un-issued original scarlet Irish Guard Tunics.
Some of Shaun’s commissions bring memories with them, like a uniform chair for a retired officer who might otherwise struggle to commemorate their service.
…the chairs have to look like someone is still wearing them… I try and recreate the pieces with that surrealism still present.Shaun Brownell
This is apparent too in Shaun’s newest ranges: The Tweed Wedding Wing Chairs and The Tweed Country Shooting Wing Chair. Both bring such a weighty sense of “Englishness” while also poking fun at the stereotype.
But not every chair Shaun makes has a human personality. For example, The Mid-Century Yeti chair and The Blizzard chaise are made using long-haired sheepskin, clearly transformed into the well-groomed shaggy dogs that are happy to see you home. Or The Fascinator: a beautifully restored, antique salon chair, finished with an orange guinea fowl flourish around the bottom edge.
Some of Shaun’s latest and most accessible pieces of upcycled furniture highlight the utilitarian functionality of high quality originals, lovingly restored. Shaun has managed to source the incredibly rare, vintage ‘Les Arcs’ chairs, designed by Charlotte Perriand for the Les Arcs Ski Resort in the 1960s. By taking the original frames and bead-blasting them back to their original state, Shaun has then been able to repaint them with the authentic, satin black of the original before covering them with high-quality, English black saddle hide.
These chairs somehow have a style and personality that is so completely different from the humour and liveliness of Shaun’s earlier, iconic pieces; but most excitingly, it does mark Shaun’s first venture into longer-run items, getting ever-so-slightly closer to affordability for those of us looking for items that are sustainable for our current bank balance too… These gorgeous chairs are being sold singly, or in sets of 2, 4, 6 and 8, and are all likely to last a few more generations at least!
Last but not least among our favourites in Shaun’s current collection is The Cushion Fight. This is a real ode to Shaun’s own work and the furniture-making craft he plays with: a deconstructed French armchair and footstool without any (traditional) upholstery at all – its webbing and cushions left bare for the world to appreciate, and looking more than a little caught unawares beside its high-necked, buttoned down siblings.
In all, Shaun Brownell reverses the asceticism of so much self-consciously sustainable furniture. All of his designs are infused with enormous personality; not just his own, but characters of their own. They’re each as unique as any person. Their personalities celebrate their past lives and their new ones, leading us determinedly away from the our throw-away society and towards a brave, stylish, fun and upcycled future.