Richard, an old hand in the salvage and repurposing business, has become well known for his bizarre and diverse hoard of ephemera, supplying everyone from the Pinewood Studios props department to innumerable interior designers, as well as several high street restaurant chains. “Requests for the bizarre is what makes this type of work such a thrill,” confides Richard, “One of my most recent challenges was sourcing 450 spinning wheels for the feature film Maleficent, which was exciting as I got to go to Pinewood Studios and actually see them on set.
“Another recent mission was finding 1,000 dolls’ heads for the bar front of a nightclub. This was a brilliant example of upcycling unwanted items into a contemporary art installation, although it did demand that I spend every weekend for a month scouring car boot sales.”
Richard’s early career was as part of a circus motorcycle stunt team, but with a young family on the way he decided to get a more stable job. So 30 years ago Richard started to import disused wine and olive pots from Portugal, which he sold on at flower shows and garden fairs as ornamental garden pots.
This early form of recycling led to Richard being approached by the owner of a then fledgling Portuguese restaurant chain, who wanted him to help furnish and accessorise their new restaurants – which he did – with everything from salvaged natural cork to humongous port barrels repurposed as seating booths. The chain went from strength to strength, as did Richard’s reputation as a master procurer.
Growing up in this creative and entrepreneurial environment, it is perhaps no surprise that Richard’s daughter Claire cut short her career in care two years ago to join the family business. Cumulatively they attend more than 100 fairs a year, selling their unique mix of vintage, salvaged and recycled items.
“It’s not a very glamorous life, but I love it,” says Claire. “Sleeping in the van, ridiculously early starts, and the constant loading and unloading is hard, but you meet all sorts of interesting people, and as time goes on I’m becoming more confident about what excites and inspires the public.”
Since joining forces, Claire has taken over key elements of the business, freeing up Richard’s time to invest in creating new repurposing and recycling projects. The opening of Posh Tat in Leeds is very much part of Claire’s vision for the future.
“Having lived and worked in the city for the last 12 years, I could see that there was a gap in the market for our type of product,” she says. “When I spotted the vacant premises in Headingley I decided to phone the estate agents on a bit of a whim as pop-up shops are a fairly new concept for Leeds. However, the owners were really into the idea.”
The name Posh Tat encapsulates rather neatly the old adage about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. The interior of the shop is certainly testament to that, featuring as it does an enamel baby bath from the 1950s and hospital baby weighing scales from the 1970s.
“The bath could be a garden planter, and the scales could become the cool kitchen accessory of a keen amateur baker. The potential is endless,” says Claire. Other items in the shop include a huge BSA rifle box, which would have been attached to a motorbike as a type of side car in the Second World War, and some salvage items from a shipyard, including an original porthole and life buoy. There are also several recycled items from Morocco which Claire picked up in the souks of Marrakesh.
“The souks are just the most incredible emporium of treasure with all sorts of artefacts originating from the Berber people, who are nomadic and who historically travelled all over Africa,” adds Claire. “Over recent years though, the Berber have started to settle, so things like their beautiful ornate tent pegs and their giant hand crafted camel bags, in which they would have stored their tents and supplies as they travelled, are no longer needed and so have become available for sale. For the same price as mass-produced ornaments you can buy a little bit of history.”
Although the majority of Richard and Claire’s salvage and recycling is done on home turf, when they do source items abroad they do so ethically. The redundant petrol and oil cans are purchased in bulk from Indonesia, and the work of cleaning them and converting them into lamps is carried out in this country. Other long-standing relationships have developed with metalwork artisans in Zimbabwe, so much so that eight years ago Richard sponsored one of the artists to emigrate to the UK.
“For various personal reasons he was desperate to move to the UK, so I did what I could to help him, and now his business is established here and we work together more than ever,” says Richard.
For Richard and Claire, recycling and repurposing is about using a little “tender loving care” and a little bit of imagination to turn one person’s rubbish into another person’s treasure. “Sometimes things just need a clean or a sand and a wax to make them attractive and useful again,” says Claire with a smile. “Or if you are like my dad and hate throwing anything away, then with a little bit of creativity discarded items can take on all sorts of new lives.”
Posh Tat in North Lane, Headingley, Leeds, is open to January 1, Tuesday to Sunday 9.30am-6pm. Richard and Claire Walton’s items are also available from Saltaire Vintage Shop and Skipton Antiques Centre.