Danny Seo, in a Halloween mask made from a cereal box and old polyester pillow. (Laura Moss )
It takes vision to see a Halloween mask in a thrown-away cereal box, or tea light candle holders constructed from jam jar lids. But if one man's trash is another's treasure, Danny Seo has a lot to work with. In "Upcycling Celebrations," a new use-what-you-have guide to decorating, gift-giving and entertaining, the self-described environmental lifestyle expert transforms junk into holiday gold for celebrations year round. We caught up with the 35-year-old author and TV personality to talk about the projects he outlines in his book.
Question: Most Americans are more familiar with the greenie mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle" than they are with upcycling. How did you get started making beautiful objects from garbage?
Answer: I was fascinated by this whole concept by the time I was 12 years old, when I was asked to enter a Christmas decorating competition for charity. Everybody did the standard tree, with the regular lights and ornaments. I found a local diner throwing away large mayonnaise jars, so I decided to cut up a tree and put it inside 50 jars and refashion it into a tree as something modernist and different. It was a childhood thing where I just liked doing this as a pastime activity, not so much with the intention of doing a book about it one day.
One of my favorite projects in your book is the party ball fashioned from old plastic bags. Where do you get these ideas?
For that one, I was doing an HGTV home makeover. On cable, the budgets are next to nothing, so for me as a former magazine editor, it's all about the details in a photo shoot. I thought I needed flowers, but I had no money, so I went through the homeowner's junk and found bags and thought: What if I could twist them and cut them a certain way? Then we got this poofy florally plastic-y thing, and it's a technique I've used across the board with numerous projects. Almost everything in the book is accidental in the way it's been conceived.
The holidays are a time of inordinate waste. Is "Upcycling Celebrations" meant to stem some of that tide?
For the holiday season, the greenest thing you could do is give somebody an unwrapped gift that isn't in a box, but there's something very Scrooge-like about that. There's something magical about the holidays, and you don't want to strip that away, especially for a child. I'm a believer in two things. One is that quality beats quantity every time. The second is, even if you don't care about the environment and buy gift wrap and bows, those materials are so frustrating because they're all packaging and not enough gift wrap material. I was trying to find things that are practical and easy. I had a previous book that was nothing but gift wrap ideas. Take old VHS tape. There's hundreds of yards of black ribbon to wrap gifts. It's the same color ribbon Chanel uses for its gift wrap.
Do you think there's an enduring public perception that being sustainable can't also be stylish?
It's unfair that sustainable living gets put on a platform for being too crunchy or natural. If you look at a category like food or fashion or home design, you'll find ugly and beautiful examples, but when it comes to green, everything has the same standard, which seems really unfair.
How did Americans get so wasteful?
Things are too easy and immediate. It's like an instant gratification society. I think we're the only society where you can go to a retailer and they sell something called vase filler. We're too lazy now to even fill our own vases. We've got to bring some authenticity and handmade things back into our lives.
Beyond the projects you outline, is there a deeper message?
I'm not looking for people to look at my books as being the only projects they can do. I want this to become intuitive to people. They'll get ideas and learn methods and techniques, but maybe they'll take a mint out of an old Altoids tin and think: What can I use that for? I want everybody to find that inner MacGyver and tap into it.