We sat with Thomas in his living room, but my eyes kept drifting around the house, its décor shaped by the confluence of upcycled furniture and artefacts from Malta’s yesteryears. I knew of Thomas – like most of Malta – as a well-established actor, but stepping inside his abode quickly reveals a passion of his that’s a little less known: the upcycling of old furniture, and the repurposing of tokens and items from the past. He kindly offered me a drink, I reigned in the urge to grab the gorgeous, yellow vintage typewriter he had on his desk and make a run for it.
The actor, comedian, and creative has a varied portfolio behind him – from an 80 year-old Bishop in Les Misérables to Frank’N’Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. More recently, he took on the role of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the play Amadeus, and this December (and January), he has returned to the round table of the Comedy Knights for their (hilarious) new show, Comedy Knights: Let’s Talk About SIX! Next up, he’ll be performing in the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (buy tickets here)!
But for this article, the subject is the art of decorating your home through upcycling (the upgrading and/or redesign of vintage or unwanted furniture and décor), second-hand furniture pieces, and do-it-yourself projects.
TC: I like the fact that you can do it with your own two hands. We’re so used to things being done by others because now things are specialised and we don’t have enough time. So I think there is something really special in doing something yourself and putting something together that reflects your character. A lot of people feel uncomfortable with designing themselves.
H: Nowadays, you order something online or get something ready-made from a showroom – it’s quite an impersonal process.
TC: Yes, but social media has helped as well. It’s so easy to check platforms like Pinterest and Facebook for inspiration. For example, say you have a few pictures that you’d like to frame, but don’t know how to put them together, you can look up a gallery wall and get thousands of ideas.
H: It can be quite intimidating. It’s hard to take the first step when you’re surrounded by ready-made, ‘flawless’, products on the market.
TC: The first point of departure is to look. Everything you’re seeing here is very cheap. If you are to buy a new art deco lamp at most homeware stores you’re looking at hundreds of euros. I found mine in a garage, and got it for €50. Also €50 was that unit. It was in an old house in Ħamrun. Luckily it [50s and 60s G Plan – a British furniture brand] is a style that works well here but isn’t hugely popular right now.
H: As I look around, I can see there’s method behind the madness.
TC: Thank you, haha. I feel like that. The floor tiles are so classical, and then I have the ceiling which is concrete. I didn’t have any choice – I had to change the ceiling, but I opted against plastering it and left it as bare concrete. It would have made it lighter, but I liked the pattern of the wood on the concrete. Knowing when to break the norms is a good clue to creating your own style.
TC: This sofa belonged to my grandparents. The only thing I did was change the legs. Apart from that, this is the original fabric. Even these three sofas you’re sitting on. A woman was throwing them out, I took them to a really lovely upholsterer.
H: The sofas are very classical, but then your Kitchen is contemporary. It has neutral colours, it’s functional, and it’s minimalistic.
TC: Balance is important. Since everything in here is so busy I decided to keep the walls simple. Likewise, I wanted the kitchen to be just white and glass – clean, just because there’s so much going on everywhere else. I love items that have history, because they are so much more interesting to me, but at the end of the day, the item must have a function. Yes, some are going to be decorative, but if I’m getting a vintage fan, I am going to make certain it works – and it does!
H: Speaking of the fan – that’s Italian?
TC: It is Zodiaco San Giorgio. They are very rare, but you do see some in Sicily. They’re highly coveted by Italians, in Malta, not as much. In America and the UK, a Zodiaco San Giorgio fan goes for thousands. I bought it for €100.
H: When did you start upcycling and repurposing?
TC: It started when I used to live in London. I stayed in a very cheap house in a posh area – Chiswick. You’d have these very rich homeowners who would put out these beautiful chests of drawers on the pavement for anybody to take. A little like bulky refuse. In England, and in Malta, you put something out on the pavement and if it’s still half decent, somebody will take it. I remember carrying back home a huge chest of drawers by myself. As they say, one man’s trash, another guy’s treasure. Now people are becoming a bit more aware of the value of certain items. But fashion comes and goes in waves. In England, this sort of furniture – G Plan, mid-century – is highly valued. In Malta, it is still cheap.
H: If you had to pick three items that have special historical and personal meaning to you, what would they be?
TC: I really love that clock. That used to be my grandfather’s, and he had it made when he used to work as a naval engineer in Sudan. It was always in his kitchen. After he passed away, mum asked me if I wanted to keep it, which made me very happy. It sits beside a photo of my grandmother when she was a young woman.
The fan is a favourite, of course. There is also a beautiful LP player radio. I got it as a housewarming gift from a group of friends – and it actually works! I just don’t use it often. There was one exactly like it – although not in as good a condition – at the Birgu flea market for €70.
H: Thomas, are those cigarette packets on the wall?
TC: When I was taking out the old tiles, I found lots of cigarette packets from when this block was being built. They’re from the 1960s and used to be very popular. My father remembers going to the shop and buying them.
H: Anything you’d like to share with anyone who wants to dip their hands in the world of design?
TC: It’s so easy to find great deals; you can go house sales, the market, auctions, and charity shops. All the things one could need are available to us, and that is in part thanks to social media. Ultimately, it’s a matter of dedicating yourself to a project, and always keeping an eye open.
This week’s Question: Do you have upcycled or repurposed furniture in the house?