Oxfordshire, UK - He introduces himself, 'Thornton, like the chocolates'. Rather appropriately, Thornton Kay is like a selection box of salvage. In 1991 Thornton established Salvo, a network to make it easier for people to buy and sell old building materials and SalvoWEB, the online marketplace for consumers and trade to buy and sell architectural salvage and antiques. Prior to establishing Salvo, he ran a design and build business, built a reclaimed recording studio for eighties new wave band, Tears for Fears and co-founded Walcot, the first salvage yard for reclaimed building materials. He describes Wool Hall Studios, 'we reused loads of stone for the walls, roof tiles, oak beams, doors and windows. The finished studio looked so at home in its environment that a building inspector couldn't find it'. Like a good selection box, I sense I am in for surprises as he reveals how this small family business has built a reputation as the authority on reclamation.
100,000 old doors are saved by the UK architectural salvage trade every year, but more than 2 million are thrown away. Within a minute of our meeting, he eloquently unravels Salvo's lobbying to stop EU legislation in favour of standardisation, which would remove things like reclaimed bricks from the market. I have yet to meet someone as passionate about bricks, but perhaps more of us would join his fight to save them with the knowledge that in the UK, we manufacture about 2 billion bricks a year and destroy about the same number in demolition. Every 12 bricks embodies the energy of a gallon of petrol and while there is a big push for recycling, there is little push for reuse.
The word upcycling conjures up visions of painted furniture, but it was originally coined by Thornton with salvage dealer Reiner Pilz, whilst despairing about the waste of old building materials in European demolition under the name of recycling in the early 90s. 'I called it downcycling' he says. 'They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling where old products are given more value, not less'.
In tune with the lyrics of Tears for Fears, someone could have said to him 'welcome to your life; there's no turning back'. He describes playing with bricks on bomb sites in west London as a child and seeing sections of buildings with wallpaper and fireplaces still stuck to the walls. 'They even had little ornaments on the mantle pieces, it was like a cameo of life, as it was then'. At the age of nine, Thornton witnessed the demolition of an old music hall, the Chiswick Empire. 'Contractors came in with a wrecking ball and just smashed this beautiful old building and as far I could see, it all got carted off to landfill. I wouldn't have done that to that old building'. Thornton went on to co-found Walcot, the first salvage yard for reclaimed building materials in the seventies and set about saving things from bricks to Georgian fireplaces, persuading builders and demolition contractors to sell materials to him instead of smashing them in skips. Initially small, the market for reclaimed materials grew and an article about Walcot in The Daily Telegraph attracted 3 sacks full of mail. 'People wanted to know what we were doing. People hadn't heard of it and it was mainly women that wrote and wanted to buy. They liked the story, durability and craftsmanship and preferred it to new soulless stuff. Women didn't like the crazy waste of throwing it away in the first place'.
Surrounded by salvage in the Retrouvius showroom, I glance up at the giant anglepoise above us whilst Thornton tells me the story of Temple Bar, Christopher Wren's old gate to the City of London and the tenacious woman that saved it. In the 1870s, Valerie Meux bought it as architectural salvage, transporting over 2,500 stones weighing nearly 400 tons from London to be rebuilt at her Hertfordshire estate. I admit being momentarily distracted with the idea of transporting the giant anglepoise, recently acquired from Soho House, to my flat in west London, proving Thornton's point about women liking the story of salvage.
Thornton goes onto recall the chief window dresser at Selfridges shopping for reclaimed props at Walcot and how the salvage industry created markets with fashion shops using reclaimed materials. The Salvo ethos is reclaim, reuse, repeat, matching someone who wants to get rid of something with someone who wants it. I might be stretching the analogy a chocolate too far, but I am intrigued to know his first choice from a selection box. He tells me he takes the often unloved coconut and I realise the analogy applies. Thornton helped to establish the market in English Rose kitchens, which were completely unloved and being trashed'. Salvage dealers, such as Source Antiques now specialise in them and sold one to singer Paloma Faith, who can be seen on You Tube cooking recipes like her father's Tortilla Espanola in her English Rose kitchen.
I naively thought of trendy green technologies as a contemporary solution. While salvage is at the heart of Thornton's original vision for Salvo. Aged just 24, he found himself part of a building cooperative and helped organise the first green holistic environmentally sustainable fair, Comtek.
'It stands for Community Technology. We started as the Bath Community Design Workshop doing architectural work on unused or misused buildings'. Handing me a guide from the 1974 exhibition with a man on a wind driven generator, his eyes sparkle with a suitably radical glance and he tells me it is still his mission to get green and salvage working together.
Now running annual fairs with his daughter Ruby, the Salvo Fair is the largest, bringing dealers and designers from around the UK and Europe to showcase antiques, salvage and reclaimed materials. Tiny Salvaged Spaces, an exhibition at this year's Salvo Fair is inspired by the trend towards small spaces for living, relaxing and working. SalvoWEB recently featured one woman, Toni Cyan-Brock who was determined to change her life and achieve the dream of owning her own home. Saving reclaimed wood and architectural salvage, she collected enough to build her own tiny house in Texas. First-time buyers struggling to purchase a home might be inspired by small houses that are not only more affordable, but also ecologically friendly. Ecovril, the green building consultants I am working with on my renovation will be on hand to offer advice. Posing questions like 'why should men have all the sheds?'- Gill Heriz, author of 'A Woman's Shed' will also be there signing books.
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask for tips on buying salvage. Thornton is keen to spread the word that reclaimed materials can work on small budgets and even save you money. 'Using salvage usually means quite small things will have an influence on the design. Go for what is available because if you can adapt your design it will make it a lot cheaper and easier'. And with that, I relish in my lucky dip approach to a chocolate selection box and he leaves me with 'embrace the unexpected and use it as a design opportunity'.
As you know, this year is my first Salvo Fair. I hope to see you there on Saturday 27th - Sunday 28th June at Fawley Hill, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. RG9 6JA
And if not in person, then at least in Smart Phone spirit. Join me and the SalvoWEB team and share your salvage selfie for the chance to win two very useful things!
1. Salvo organic fairtrade shopper
2. Salvo Pack - the essential antique & salvage guide
Salvo Fair 2015
Story Type: Feature