Max explains his brilliantly bonkers upcycling creations and his eco friendly life in a modern world
Max McMurdo is a designer, author and TV presenter, you may recognise his creations from shows such as BBC’s ‘Dragons’ Den’, CH4’s ‘Amazing Spaces’, ‘Fill your House for Free’, ‘Find it, Fix it, Flog it’, ‘Mortgage Free’ on Netflix, National Geographic’s ‘Machine Impossible’ and ITV’s ‘10k Holiday Home’. His most recent venture is ‘The Weekend Workshop’ currently on HGTV now.
Homes North’s editor Gillian Ashworth, was fortunate enough to have a chat with him over a video call, in his unique shipping container home, to find out a little bit more about his inspirations, his lifestyle and to try and gain some top tips from his upcycling genius.
You are described on many media platforms as an ‘eco-designer’, what is your interpretation of that, and how does it describe what you do?
When I started out, I thought an Eco-designer was somebody taking blatantly reclaimed materials and converting them quite subtly into useable items – like the shopping trolley chair, as a prime example.
Since then, as I’ve learned and developed, but also as a society we have learned and developed, that all design should be eco-design. We should always be designing things that can be repaired, that don’t use throwaway plastic.
Car design is also a good example of this, as back in the day, we didn’t think about what happened to a car at the end of its life, whereas now it is an important part of the process. So rather than designing things that are thoughtless, and worrying about recycling them at the end, eco-design is now a process of thinking a) Do they need to exist? b) Can we design them better, so they are more efficient and use less materials? and c) What happens at the end of their life? – Can they be reused or fixed or recycled?
Eco-design is a much bigger subject than just describing the end products of what you see, it can involve a whole community. For example, with my family, and as a kid, I remember that people used to just leave unwanted items outside in front of their houses on the street, and on a Saturday, many families like us, would just wander around picking things up, in order to use them, or to fix, or make into something else. My Dad and I spent many an afternoon doing this, and then even longer working in the shed with the objects later.
It’s about the perceived value of things, which means upcycling has to be a passion and you need to have a love for it, or you wouldn’t do it.
What inspired you to go down this route as a designer?
I started my designer career as a car designer and was shocked at how little they cared about the environmental impact of their manufacturing and engineering. This commercialism of objects, and complete waste of materials doesn’t sit right with me, and never has, so after a while, I jacked in everything. I sold my scooter, I handed my notice in on my flat and I bought an old camper van and I drove back to England (as I was living in Germany at the time) collecting junk on-route and decided to just make things that were environmentally friendly.
It’s the romantic notion of an idea in your head, being fabricated by your hands and selling it to a customer. Its brilliantly bonkers and I love it.
My inspiration originally came from my Dad, he used to come home at 6pm every night, in his suit, from his accountancy job and the first thing he would do is have a cup a tea, put his work clothes on, and then take me out into the garden and start making stuff. Even though he had a proper job, he still did this as his passion.
I consider myself very lucky and privileged to have managed to make my passion and hobby into what I ‘do’ as a job, I get paid to do this, and it’s amazing. Thanks to the producers of TV shows, I’ve been able to do just this, but I honestly think, that it’s something I would still be doing, even if I didn’t get paid for it, just like my Dad did.
It is a shame he’s not here now, to see what I have created, and how I live my life, he would have loved my shipping container house!
What’s the one thing (or the many little things) that triggered a response in you to live and work to a ‘different beat’ now, as some might say?
I guess it has been quite organic really, living on a houseboat at a marina, on the river; of course I do that, and of course I drive a smart car and of course I have a double decker bus that has a workshop on the top floor. To a lot of other people that sounds like a crazy dream, but to me, it’s felt quite organic and evolutionary.
It does sound like I have a completely weird and wonderful life now, but it has always felt like the obvious next step. And once you’re doing it, it doesn’t feel weird at all. I’m sat in my shipping container now, with electric, lights, Alexa and all the normal things.
Believe it or not, when I am at work, filming, presenting etc I get stressed and am quite a chaotic person, when put in a fast-paced, ‘real world’ environment, as most people are. But as soon as I walk through those marina gates and come home to my houseboat, in the harbour, the pace of life just slows down. Nobody who lives on a houseboat and has this lifestyle can be in rush, as things just don’t happen that quickly. It’s the influence of nature and being outside in the elements that inspires me, and from being in the cubs and scouts as a boy, I always had a love of everything outdoorsy.
I was lucky enough to have the capital of £45K when I sold my house (and a lot of people do have this amount of equity) which enabled me to make this life for myself, and be mortgage free.
It is probably more important than ever now, after this pandemic to own your own home and take pride in the place where you live, as it’s a really important part of your life I think, where you live.
Rented accommodation can be just as beautiful as owning your own home, so let’s not forget that. When I lived in Germany, the majority of people rented their homes, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of renting, as sometimes it gives you more flexibility for example. I think there is a bit of English snobbery about owning your own home and owning a large home as well. I live in a container, but sat here in the lounge, I can’t even see my bedroom.
Yes, it looks as big as most flats I would say.
I know, and if I had another room, it would just be costing me money to heat it. It’s nonsense really. I think we are fixated on owning bigger homes, but appliances have got smaller, TVs have got smaller, technology in general has got smaller. So, should our homes be getting smaller, rather than bigger?
It doesn’t mean you are more successful if you have a bigger house.
Success isn’t money, its happiness.
Moving on to what you make and create, please describe 3 of your favourite projects and why you are proud of them?
My House is probably the first thing. It’s a shipping container that floats on water in essence, but it has given me the life change I wanted, and the way of life I’ve always aspired to have. It has some clever engineering in it, for example a concrete bathroom that has a thermal heater that heats up the whole bathroom, as the water temperature increases. It was completely out of my comfort zone, as I’m not an architect. I always said to George Clarke, jokingly, that architects are just product designers who build bigger things badly, but there is a lot to consider when building a house and I learnt a lot.
The second is probably my first real upcycling project, which was a shopping trolley I made into a chair. This came with its own challenges, like how do you upholster and attach the fabric to wire, whilst creating a comfortable chair. This chair probably started me on my journey into upcycling, so I’ll always be proud of it.
However, I’ve saved the best till last, as it was such an emotional project, and one that I’ll always remember, and a concept that I am still, and will continue to campaign for, and still makes me emotional now through the experience I had in Kenya. Its BOTL BLOX. The idea began, from seeing extreme poverty in Kenya, where families lived on rubbish tips, under a blanket shelter, amongst the rubbish, the animals, the dirt and the masses of plastic. There was a lack of building materials, and it got me thinking, making a very long flight home into what felt like minutes, as I was just drawing and designing the idea all the way home. The blocks are a system that enables the use of plastic bottles stuffed with waste plastic to create cavity wall style insulated stackable building blocks. We got the families and children to collect the plastic for us, and gave them a return of a few pence, which gave them some money and helped us.
I would like to add this actually, and mention the visors we made in reaction to the recent pandemic, which was quite joyous, as I went back to my old DT department in my old school, with some of my old teachers and using the machinery and materials they had, we made 30,000 visors and distributed them to the NHS.
That was brilliant and re-enforced to me how important good design really is. We weren’t designing fluffy cushions; we were designing visors to save lives.
That makes me so proud.
If I were to try to make one of your products, and wanted to copy some of the lifestyle you love, where would I start? Are there any special skills I’d need?
You need to have the inclination to do it, and to think about what you can use different items for, and some sort of engineering know-how helps. The ability to look at something and see the potential in it to make something else beautiful and useable, is all you really need.
As a first-time buyer, finding your first home, within budget, is usually the hardest part… but filling the home with a limited budget can be equally as hard. So, what would be your advice to first time buyers, keen on upcycling, faced with an empty home and garden to fill?
I would start by saying you don’t need a lot of money to fill a home. The things around me, for example, are not expensive, most have once been junk, or been inherited. I have my Dad’s cup from his army days for example behind me with his old army boot brush in it, I have a ladder in the corner that I use as a lamp and as shelves, which still has my Dad’s name etched on it. And I fill my home with things I love, without worrying if they match. I just have to like them. I also have the odd thing I picked up in Home sense as a bargain, or IKEA, I’m not adverse to shopping sometimes either, it’s just a matter of having things around that you love. Without worrying if they ‘match’, for example I have a washing machine drum table, and a drinks cabinet made from an old suitcase. Mix and match is currently a trend now anyway.
Furniture is a big thing in smaller homes, really have a think about how much furniture you actually need, and try not to add anything extra, which means you may have to cull some of your things. For example, I have seen large wardrobes or chests of drawers blocking out windows in homes, and taking up space alongside fitted wardrobes, where you could put away your winter clothes in the loft for example, and keep the space and light in the room. We don’t need that much stuff.
If you could give a keen up-cycler one piece of advice, maybe something you have learned over time, what would it be?
Be Brave. But be brave in every respect, be brave with thinking outside the box and the concept you come up with. Be brave within the tools you choose to use, don’t stay within your comfort zone. Be brave by trying to make the product better, don’t just paint it, see if you can add functionality.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match objects and when upcycling, mix and match different materials. A coffee table doesn’t have to be made of wood only, or glass only, it can be made of both and you could even add a bit of metal too! Fusing these materials together is part of the enjoyment and fun of the design, and remember that sometimes it doesn’t always work, so you have to be brave enough to try and try again, and not worry about perfection.
Good mental health is important right now, and something we have touched upon in our magazine. How do you keep your motivation up? And stay happy?
My motivation comes from my environment, each day I wake up to wildlife, nature and this keeps me going. As well as a mind that doesn’t rest for long, as I have ideas upon ideas, that I want to share with everyone. Creative people never stop looking for inspiration I suppose, especially as a designer. I spend a lot of time on my iPad drawing new designs. For example, for my next series I was asked for 16 ideas to make 16 programmes. I submitted at least 50 for the producer to pick from!
It’s fair to say, I am in quite a happy place right now, because I always thought that success was coming up with ideas then selling them, then at the end going ‘yay, it all worked and I’ve got loads of money’. In my old age, I’ve realised it’s not that, it’s enjoying the process.
Last night I was in my workshop until half nine at night, and I loved it. I embraced it, I drank coffee and I sang and I danced. I loved the moment.
I also have a few hobbies, I paddle-board every day if I can, and this has become a way of life for me. My love of Scottish rugby also helps, as I like to go to Scotland regularly for this. Holidaying in other countries, and luxury resorts don’t really appeal to me, but Glamping and UK holidays have always been a passion of mine.
The problem is when I truly relax, my brain gets even more creative… so I have to take a sketch pad.
Finally, Tell us about your next project?
I’ve just finished off a series for the Discovery channel, on Homes and Garden TV, called ‘The Weekend Workshop’, which will be live as you read this interview.
Its presented by myself, Kate Humble, Zoe Pocock who oversees ‘Muck N Brass’ and Discovery just said, ‘I want you to do a show where you just design and make cool things’. It was just free rein, to create our own inventions, so I did, and it was joyous.
I actually can’t wait to see it, as we only invented the show two months ago, and as we filmed it in lock down, I genuinely haven’t seen what Zoe and Kate have made, so I’m looking forward to it as much as everyone else. We are all environmentalists, so we have used as much reclaimed materials as possible, but we have all gone off on different tangents, being beautifully bonkers in our own way.