A designer for life: meet Max McMurdo

Cover of Upcycling Outdoors by Max McMurdo

By Morwenna Kearns

You'll have seen Max McMurdo's ideas: his eco-friendly furniture design business Reestore on Dragons' Den, a plethora of clever multifunctional products on Fill Your House for Free, an old VW Beetle turned into £5,000 worth of furniture – even his own home, a floating shipping container house, on Amazing Spaces. In fact, it's surprising that up until now he's only filled one book, 2016's Upcycling. It now has a follow-up, Upcycling Outdoors, all about re-imagining pieces destined for landfill into Insta-perfect garden furniture.

I caught up with Max to check out Upcycling Outdoors and everything else this busy design bee has been up to.

McMurdo Upcycling Outdoors QA

Hello Max! So the sequel to Upcycling is out in a few days – what's it all about?

I couldn't believe I got asked to write a book – I'm a designer because I got thrown out of English! Instead I went down to the design room and made things, it was all I enjoyed. But it turns out the timing's perfect because people are trying to learn new skills, we're putting a value on our time and experiences. I was really lucky because I used to spend a lot of time in the garage with my dad making things, and he learnt things from his father – we used to get more hand-me-down knowledge and skills, which I think is a little bit lacking in today's society. It's really nice to know by buying the book people are learning skills – not just upcycling, DIY skills as well – that are really valuable.

Do you think there's an appetite for that kind of knowledge?

I think the recession has affected that. It's a push-pull effect: upcycling is very fashionable and there's the trend for industrial design, but then there's the push of people not having as much money as they used to have. I've gone outdoors with the new book because people aren't going on holiday as much; we can't all afford to go to Ibiza for a fortnight any more, but to invest a quarter of that money into making some cool stuff for your own back garden, whether it's a hot tub or a little potting shed, to improve where you live is lovely. Plus, it's eco-friendly and saving things from landfill.

What's your favourite project in the book?

There's a barbecue made out of a toolbox, which is the first thing I bought when I started my business. I don't use it any more but it has great sentimental value. The bottom tray pulls out to hold the charcoal, then I cut out the base of the ones above for a griddle, then a hot burner, then a cooler one, then hotplate at the top. I've got to keep my original toolbox but it's ten times more useful then it ever was.

Gumtree McMurdo Beetle

Do you get sentimentally attached to things? When you took apart the Beetle, for example, did you feel bad about it?

Yes, I get sentimentally attached to things. But the Beetle was rotten and worth £50 scrap, and we turned it into £5,000 for charity, so that's amazing. As long as it lives on, that's better. In all the designs I try and keep some of the original form. I never like to completely cover up a product's origins. Like the shopping trolley chair, for example, you could upholster every surface of it, and completely cover up its original life but I think you need to keep some of that originality. I want people to look at my pieces and think, first and foremost, 'That's beautiful', and then 'Isn't that made from...?'

There's a project in Upcycling Outdoors where you coat a flatpack table with concrete. Ten years ago, concrete was really just for builders and now people are making their own pieces with it at home... Do you think you're helping people discover where to find tools and materials?

In most people's eyes upcycling is 80 per cent painting furniture, which is fine, but upcycling for me is about proper design, proper innovation, clever contraptions, space-saving ideas. I love big projects. I have a new programme coming out called £10K Holiday Homes with Julia Bradbury, which is all about upcycling things like caravans – which are a scourge because they are made from a lot of materials all stuck together that can't be recycled. Saving a caravan and reinventing it is real upcycling and that's what excites me. It's going to be amazing.

McMurdo Upcycling Outdoors toolbox

Do you lie awake at night in your shipping container house thinking of what else you can do with it – maybe add another storey?

It's a bit of a disease; whenever I'm walking around, looking out of a window, my brain is constantly whirring with, 'What about that? What about this?' Upcycling is my baby, it's my belief, it's my everything.

Do you think industrial decor is here to stay? Why?

The industrial look is going to stay around for a while. I'm a bit sick of fake copper but you can't beat a pallet! We go to schools and teach kids how to turn a pallet into things like a chair for their library. All they really do is they break a pallet apart, they measure, they mark, they cut, they stamp their initials, they sand it all up and nail it onto a framework. But they're so proud of themselves, it's a feeling you can't replicate with a PlayStation or an iPad. You get a real satisfaction from making something from scratch yourself. At the start of the lesson they're not completely sure, and by the end they're fighting over pallet wood and asking if they can take a little piece home.

What's next for you, Max?

We're going to various events this year with our double-decker bus, which is essentially a mobile workshop. I'm fortunate in that I have a workshop with tools I've bought over the years, so I thought 'Why don't I make a workshop I can take to the people, then everyone can have a go?' So we got this double-decker bus, stripped out the seating and replaced it with work benches and all the tools you can imagine. The outside is painted with black chalkboard paint so as soon as people arrive we hand them a piece of chalk and tell them to draw their design on it, then we go through what they want to make and the tools they need. They can make something, take it home and then maybe feel inspired and start doing a bit more themselves. After that, I'm looking forward to getting back into the workshop. Growing up, I was obsessed with The A-Team. BA would be trapped in a building and would make, like, a helicopter out of a lawnmower and I'd think 'I want to do that one day!' I'm in a position now where I have every tool, all the knowledge – basically I want to be a real-life BA Baracus! What's next... I live in an upcycled house, I drive an upcycled car, I work in an upcycled bus... I'm not sure what there is left!

McMurdo Upcycling Outdoors

Upcycling Outdoors – 20 Creative Garden Projects Made from Reclaimed Materials by Max McMurdo (published by Jacqui Small, £20) is out on April 19th 2018. £10K Holiday Homes will be aired on ITV this year.

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