Everyone knows of recycling: downgrading old material to make something lesser. But not many are aware of its opposite, upcycling: repurposing and reclaiming old material in order to make something new and even better
What may have started as simple DIY is now a full-fledged ideology and global movement pushed forward by environmental activists and alternative economy advocates alike. It’s also well alive in Israel, in spite of and as a reaction to the ubiquity of Ikea-made-everything. Across Tel Aviv, you can find artisans that not only turn dumpster diving into beautiful handmade products but do so with a guiding purpose.
Wood, wood and a lot of wood. At Molet, that’s the name of the game. Tal “Talco” Mor, 33, Head of Molet's Hospitality, chilled in their sidewalk Zula bar, completely handmade, explaining the pallet revolution and tourist workshops alongside the company dog Puma. Leashless, of course.
How did Molet come to be?
It started with Ari Lieberman. He and his friends were architects in Buenos Aires who, sick of working in front of computers, scheduled a weekly meetup for their hands, minds and beers. On the way, they would collect street pallets which they would then tinker with. They started small projects for things they needed but soon started looking at the pallet holistically, and after a few months had developed systems of how to work with them. They were taking something that has one meaning and giving it another.
After Ari made Aliyah, he met two future Molet co-founders who I went to school with. Ari told them about his pallet project back in Buenos Aires and they saw the potential and together started it here. They began with smaller workshops, even going to kindergartens to educate about wood. We used to dream of a place just for this project, would go on and on about the mythical “Molet House”, Molet meaning: modulate your pallet. Finally, last year we moved into the Molet house. We had found this space totally abandoned, full of dust and diseases, but bit by bit, with our own hands, we built it. That’s what we’re trying to get people to understand: you don’t need a lot other than your own two hands and a bit of brainpower to create things.
Why is it important for people to understand this?
It gives people the power to do something themselves and makes them better when they succeed in doing so. Better in the street, at home, interpersonally. We want to help people fulfill their potential in becoming better people, and along the way to realize that, instead of running to purchase from the industry, that all of the material laying on the street can be useful for them.
How do people react?
They’re surprised. “I couldn’t believe I could do it!” or “I didn’t know I could make it so beautiful!” and so on. I hear this over and over. People are overwhelmed by themselves. It‘s magical. They also connect to their creations. Because what you make here is more than an object; you don’t just buy it, you create it. You care about it, you’re proud of its story. You show it off at Shabbat dinners. We try to invoke people’s own internal enthusiasm, to take their creations to the next level and make it relevant to their style and needs. We are a platform not only for building something but for creating. Each person can come out with something different, something new, something imaginative. Even if it’s a bit sketchy, what’s the worst that could happen? You waste a bit of wood!
What’s one of the strangest things people have made?
One guy made an awesome rocking horse for children. But another made one for adults. A bit kinky if I must say so, I can only imagine what he’s doing with it. Yeehaw!
Favorite item to make?
Stools. I absolutely love them. There are so many possibilities, but it still has to be ergonomic, strong, built to last, and able to hold you sitting and standing. It’s a big challenge in a small item.
How are the workshops run?
You come to a workshop with closed shoes and an open mind. You get basic tools, the materials and wood that would amount to a pallet. Of course, it’s just a mental limitation - if someone needs more wood, we have plenty. But creatively, one pallet can be transformed into so many things. Then we give instructions and, finally, ask: what do you want to create?! It’s not just DIY - it’s DDIY, adding the design process. We don’t merely add wheels to a pallet and then say “walla, that’s my coffee table!”
Future of Molet?
We are developing workshops for tourists. For example, a lot of tourists come to Tel Aviv for the food, so we created a small workshop just for them where they can create a knife holder. The idea is to take the atmosphere here back in their home countries, to take a small piece of the Molet ideology back home. And, of course, we’re excited about collabs with companies like KitePride!
Perched near the entrance of the Flea Market, in an old Ottoman-style building, Shlomi Atour, 41, owner of Artizachen, discussed art and conscious consumerism amidst the innumerable trinkets crammed between his beautifully hand-refurbished furniture, basked by the pulsating sound of machinery and smell of sanded wood.
Tell us about your background.
After studying interior design, I worked in professional design: commercial, exhibition, movie and graphic design. It was mostly computer work, but I always kept a small home studio with material for working with my hands. After a few years, a carpenter was leaving this very location. I came to take some of his old materials and saw the “for rent” sign. Alongside my overflowing home studio and numerous projects for friends I had started taking more seriously, I knew I needed a new space and a break from office life. So I took it.
While now we have added a storefront and create custom pieces, the first few years we focused on interior design projects, working on spots like Xoho, Arele, Aris and Yamas. What’s special is that we both design the space and build it in house. It’s a “Autarky” economy in that we’re self sufficient, from the idea to the upcycling to the end product, and without purchasing anything. What’s funny is that I didn’t have professional experience with wood - even in school I didn’t take many workshop classes. I was more attracted to art and the conceptual shit. That’s where the “Art” in Artizachen comes from: the border between art, design and junk. Altizachen is Yiddish for old stuff, but in Hebrew it just means junk, like the guy with the horse who buys all sorts of broken things and sells to the flea market. I do it differently: I take the junk, and make art out of it!
How do you source your materials?
The street is the best supermarket. When you become a professional junker, you upgrade your junk level. You know where to find treasures, you can just smell it. I see myself reclaiming the old Tel Aviv. I preserve the history, even personal history, when I take items from places like the Yemenite Quarter where my family lived. I’ll literally buy the remnants of a whole house - the doors, the windows, the shutters, whatever comes out from it - things that otherwise would go straight to the trash. People don’t see the beauty, but even an hour of work can reveal their essence. It might sound too poetic, but when I sand a window, I can feel the atmosphere of the family that lived there, the meals cooked together, the shared fights, it all comes out. I feel that I purify the object through this process. I think about this often.
Why is what you do important?
Well...I’ve always been a “collector”, I just can’t help it! Anyone who owns a flea market shop has an accumulation problem, which we turn into a career to justify instead of diagnosing our mental dysfunction. But it’s important to recognize that accumulation is part of the zeitgeist. Even though people are complaining, we’re living in a period of fortune. Sixty years ago, people in Israel didn’t have a damn chair! When my grandparents would order a cupboard, it would be for life.
Now we have too much, we throw out, we waste, have no respect for anything. The materials companies like Ikea sell us are one-off, so cheap, you do the labor and after a year it’s in the street. People want the instant. Everything's imported, so it’s cheap for you, but someone is paying the price. What I do is a bit old school, but people really appreciate it. They see the craftwork, they smell the wood, it’s nostalgic and psychological. “Woah, I used to have this item!” It’s worth it to see those smiles. It’s a different value. I like to say that the stuff I make is what your kids will fight over when you die. We’re living in an era of sustainability. People understand that society is sick. People go green and organic and vegan and want to connect to the planet and the earth. They start upcycling, they start looking for community. People take similar paths to mine - working in high tech, in a computer, the modern factory worker, with better conditions, better salaries, but suffer, only tanning by fluorescent lights. People just want to touch something that’s real.
The sleek KitePride offices provide a refreshing contrast to the nearby decrepit Old Central Bus Station. Perhaps their employees - former sex workers from the area - appreciate this difference. Between their spotless showroom and workshop where the magic happens, Jackie Intrater, 32, Head of Marketing and Sales, spoke about rehabilitative employment and circular economies.
How did you guys get here?
It started about nine years ago with Matthias and Tabea Oppliger, our founders. They started a non-profit in Switzerland helping those in prostitution try and leave the industry. What they quickly realized was that the help these people needed was in securing proper jobs, the missing bridge between their past and their future independence: rehabilitation-as-employment. Long story short - a really long story! - they decided to move to Israel where they saw more opportunities to create this kind of program. As well, there is a lot of prostitution here, with few working to change it. There are about 14,000 men and women in the industry, which exists all over, right underneath your nose. Our offices are next to Har Tzion Boulevard, a main prostitution hub. But it's even in private apartments. I used to live on Rothschild Boulevard, which is quite a nice area, and one day a random man knocked on my door. When I opened it, he was surprised. “Someone lives here? Seriously?! A year ago it was a brothel!”
How did kites come into play?
In order to fulfil the vision of rehabilitation-as-employment, we needed a product. Around 2016 we started with upcycled furniture. But soon it was apparent that it was the wrong product: it was niche, hard to sell and the physical work was inappropriate for the people we wanted to employ. Still, we knew that upcycling had the potential to be therapeutic: not only physical work with one's own hands, but taking something previously treated as trash, giving it some TLC and starting its new life. This is similar to the process our employees go through. Luckily, an acquaintance of Matti and Tabea decided to donate her brand KitePride to them, and in 2018 we transitioned to creating unique bags created out of upcycled kitesurf kites, hand sewn by people exiting both human trafficking and prostitution.
How do kitesurfers react?
They are amazing! First of all, to be a kitesurfer is to be connected to nature, so the environmental aspect they are already on board with. Also, every kitesurfer can donate their kite and get a bag. It’s a win-win. They even tell their companies about us. Just today I sent out twenty bags as Pesach gifts to a company that a donating kiter works for. This is the best way to create a circular economy, where you think of the impact of a product outside of its linear purchase. For us, a kiter buys a kite, uses it, gives it away, gets something in return and what he gives continues to give. It impacts not only others but the universe.
What’s your favorite item to make?
That’s a hard question! But our newest product, the laptop sleeve, has us all excited. One, it looks amazing! Two, we pad the sleeve with upcycled wetsuits. As neoprene is horrible for the environment, it’s awesome we found a purpose for it. Third, it’s the perfect product for the market. Everyone has laptops. Companies need them. It’s for all ages and genders. It’s one of those hit products.
And the strangest one?
Well, we’ve gotten really odd requests. One kiter wanted a diabetes case. Another wanted an apron for disabled people. There was also one who wanted to solve a kiter-specific problem: dogs can’t go on their surfboards because of their toenails, so they need special shoes. He told us “if you make it, I’ll market it, sell it, make sure it works!” Oh, someone wanted a tefillin case. Who knows...we might make it one day!
What’s the vision for the future?
One of the coolest things we’ve made and will do more of in the future, is a collaboration with Molet! It’s a product to be created in a workshop, a combination of upcycled wood and kite, to create: kites! Not kitesurf kites, but stringed kites. “Let's go fly a kite!” Collabs with companies who share our values is an example of a circular economy, combining strengths instead of competing.