Last year, Peter Owen unintentionally set himself a challenge: could he furnish his home using discarded flotsam found within his local urban ‘forest’ – the streets and laneways of Sydney?
The idea to repair furniture and household items dumped in the streets came as Peter and his wife Claire studied Permaculture Living.
The furniture-maker and dad, who was also workshop manager at Sydney’s Bower Reuse and Repair Centre (an amazing community resource, just btw) promptly set up a woodworking shed and started collecting.
As he went, Peter posted to Instagram, sharing his experiences as he practiced applying the 12 permaculture principles to making and fixing found bits and bobs – an excellent way to illustrate that permaculture can be applied to all areas of life, not just gardening.
“I got keen to apply permaculture principles to woodworking because that’s where the abundance was. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to just gather all the materials for my own house from my urban forest,” Peter recalls.
So – let’s take a look at some of the Instagram posts he created, plus have a chat to Peter about what he learned during this project…
Permaculture principles, applied to furniture repair and restoration
Peter created one Instagram post for each of the 12 permaculture principles – these are our favourites…
Observe and Interact
“Without the first principle of permaculture, I wouldn’t be woodworking. I wouldn’t have observed the bounty all around. An idea for this decade was upon me: I observed the rubbish on the street and the rubbish in our wood bin and I corrected my error. It’s not rubbish, it’s our resource.”
Catch and Store Energy
“At the Bower we are always catching Sydney’s bits and bobs and storing them for that special day they’ll be needed. I’ve come to realise we are masters of the second permaculture principle. If you know the pleasure of picking your own herbs, that’s our pleasure when repairing and tinkering as we do.”
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
“It’s in the spirit of this third principle that the Bower not only repairs furniture but also teaches students the skills to be their own repairers and maker. Education is a renewable service.”
Design From Patterns To Details
“This principle is my favoritefavourite because this is where my understanding of permaculture, economics and artistry all collide. We design from patterns to detail because permanent cultures cannot prevail under patterns which overextend their value.”
Use Small and Slow Solutions
“The circular economy has many parts: there is taking something you don’t need and getting it to someone in need; there is taking something broken and repairing it; there is teaching the community to be repairers themselves.”
Creatively Use and Respond to Change
“With this 12th principle, I’ve really been struggling to absorb the great change Claire and I have brought upon our lives, uprooting from Sydney and moving to Adelaide. But if permaculture has taught me anything, it is that the earth is not dead – it’s living – and who knows what flowers the soil is readying to recreate.”
So good! Now, let’s have a bit more of a chat with Pete about all this, shall we?
Hey Pete – tell us a bit about yourself…
Hello! I’m a furniture-maker and house husband. Father to my son. Self-taught philosopher and wannabe artist (but aren’t we all?).
I got into permaculture-thinking a number of years ago and it has hugely influenced the path I’m on – being the reason I got into furniture repurposing.
My wife, Claire, has been coming to permaculture too, looking for climate solutions and ways to embed sustainable principles into our daily lives. She signed us up for the Mlkwood Permaculture Living course as something productive and enjoyable that we could do together. Which it turned out to be.
I know for Claire and I, we have really walked away from the course with a shared language now. We might decide to go for a bike ride and in choosing where to go, we’ll go to a park where we know there is a rosemary bush and that helps us decide pasta for dinner – and we’ll say to each other knowingly, ‘integrate don’t segregate’.
We actually only recently achieved our final Milkwood action – to make climate-positive change – the other week, when Claire and her sister organised a local climate-action play group.
It had been a long-time idea we’d wanted to make happen, creating a child-friendly space for parents and caregivers to come together, share our feelings about climate change and talk about things we’re doing to make the world better for our kids.
Folks sometimes think permaculture is all about gardening – why were you keen to apply the principles to repairing furniture?
Well, I started in the garden myself. But there was this permaculture idea about zones, where you have your most intensive crops close, like out the kitchen door – that’s zone 1. Then your less intensive crops in the field – zone 2 – but then at the edge of the property is the forest which you don’t have to tend at all – zone 5. Here, you go for walks, clear your mind, and maybe find a fallen log and bring it home for firewood.
I lived in Sydney, Darlinghurst, and my zone 5 ‘forest’ was the laneways of Paddington.
My garden wasn’t all that abundant in those early days but I suddenly saw the laneways were really abundant with repurposable hard rubbish.
So I set up a woodshed in my laundry and started furnishing our home and making repairs.
You found the ‘catch and store energy’ permaculture principle particularly relevant – how so?
I had initially understood that principle as being about harnessing solar energy or rainwater or preserving food.
But at The Bower, I was looking at all the furniture and electrical goods, and seeing them as a ‘catch and store’ of labor.
All this industry and all these workers had brought these items into the world. And even if they were no longer repairable or desirable, that didn’t mean there wasn’t an enormous energy potential in them.
One thing I love about repurposing is honouring and valuing all the labour already spent in the world.
How did things change with this project as you lived through Sydney’s COVID lockdowns?
For me, the highlight of my permaculture posts came during the lockdown, when Claire and I decided to build a cubby house for our son in the front yard – the ‘integrate don’t segregate’ permaculture principle.
We realised with this principle that Claire and I should do it together. It was about making the garden a fun space for our son so that he plays more harmoniously while we gardened.
Because the cubby and garden were in our front yard, it became a chance to connect with the neighbourhood during an otherwise hard time. So this principle kind of fed on itself once we got into it and integrated us in ways we didn’t expect.
Your partner Claire has been a big part of all this – so, open mic to Claire! Anything you’d like to share?
Thanks for passing the mic to me! The main thing I want to add is – we are very early on our permaculture journey and I can sometimes get overwhelmed by all the ways we are not living sustainably.
But I found Milkwood’s Permacutlure Living approach really reassuring – to focus on one or two actions at a time, and that it’s OK to do ‘small and slow solutions’.
We wrote up our goal statement and our commitments for each principle and them stuck on our kitchen cupboards. It was very satisfying to tick things off, such as reinstating our worm farm or trying our hand at pickling.
One of the most reassuring thing is that, once you’ve put an action in place, it becomes part of your normal and you forget it’s there. It becomes part of your baseline and it’s only upon reflection that you realise you’ve got better.
You both recently moved to Tantanya / Adelaide – what’s next for you?
On the personal front, Claire and I are realising how much we need to just stop, observe and interact and get a feel for Kaurna land. And that’s going to take time.
As a furniture-maker, I’ve decided to heed the ‘small and slow solutions’ principle and start over by just making lamps for a while as a small business.
With my first batch of lamps, I used small off-cuts from my sister-in-law’s dressmaking side hustle to make the lampshades. If my inputs can be from other maker’s outputs then those are the kind of bonds that’ll make for a vibrant society.
I’ve also been fortunate to get a studio space at The Mill, an Adelaide artist co-working space.
By moving back, we’ve realised that reconnecting with our families and community networks makes climate-positive changes so much easier. We don’t have to try to do or be all things – we can use the skills and strengths of those around us to build ourselves up – ‘integrate not segregate’.
- Follow Peter via his Instagram account, The Furniture Philosopher and website.
- The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre – a Sydney non-profit offering woodworking courses, electrical and furniture repairs, and a Repair Cafe.
- The Mill – a Tarntanya / Adelaide gallery, performing arts space, photography studio, tools workshop, and coworking space for artists and creatives.
About the author: Koren Helbig is a storyteller, urban permaculturalist, Marketing Manager here at Milkwood, and keeper of The Local Yum, a Tarntanya / Adelaide city honesty stall full of homegrown produce.
We acknowledge that permaculture owes the roots of its theory and practice to traditional and Indigenous knowledges, from all over the world. We all stand on the shoulders of many ancestors – as we learn, and re-learn, these skills and concepts. We pay our deepest respects and give our heartfelt thanks to these knowledge-keepers, both past and present.