New Life From Old Stuff

Posted on Jul 1, 2010 :: Green Business
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Urban Outfitters' new corporate office in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Their sign says “Made in America. Again.” And whether you call it reclaiming, repurposing, restyling or simply recycling, Jeff and Robin Janson of Urban Evolutions Inc. in Menasha bring their creativity, imagination and vision to the art of giving old materials new life.

The Jansons got their start when fire nearly destroyed their 1890s Appleton farmhouse about 15 years ago. They set out to find architectural materials that would restore the house to its character and integrity. Along the way, they began to collect doors, beams, moldings, flooring, tin ceilings and other fixtures. As friends and local business people started asking for help with their own restoration projects, Urban Evolutions was born.

“We rescue great building materials that, more often than not, are destined for the landfill,” says Robin, who is company president. “Some we use as-is in new construction, some we repurpose as architectural elements, and some we turn into creative furnishings or accessories for the home.”

The new U.S. Venture (formerly U.S. Oil) headquarters in the CE Commercial Park in Kimberly is an example of a new building incorporating the old. Wood used for ceiling panels and stair treads was acquired by Urban Evolutions from the historic Simmons Juvenile Products Co. building in New London. Currently being demolished, it was purchased in 1917 by Thomas Edison, and used for more than 10 years to manufacture wood cases for Edison phonographs. Wood decking for the U. S. Venture roof and ceiling comes from a marina in La Crosse. The Founders’ Room table was created from wood reclaimed from an old factory building along the Fox River underneath the College Avenue bridge.

The Jansons’ work is far from just local.
“We are connected to resources all across the country,” says Jeff, who is company vice president. “And we’ve been blessed to be part of projects for some top contemporary retailers.”

The new Burberry Brit store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, for example, features a floor (salvaged in Wisconsin) supplied by Urban Evolutions. They have provided materials to nearly 100 stores of various divisions of Urban Outfitters, as well as its corporate offices in Philadelphia.

“Last year, we even supplied flooring, wall treatments and ceiling for their two new Anthropologie stores in London,” adds Jeff.

“Real materials are what give our stores soul and make them feel authentic,” says Merrie Allison, store design director for Free People, one of Urban Outfitters’ divisions. “The floor, ceiling, doors, et cetera are a huge part of creating this authentic feeling. Jeff always manages to find the right material to fit the personality of the space we want to create.”

Some of the salvaged materials are repurposed into furniture or other decorative items. Bed headboards might be made from old pickle-barrel wood. Slate from old schoolhouses, for example, might find reuse as the top of a coffee table, or a cheese serving tray. Or gym flooring pieces might become a picture frame. These items are sold in retail stores across the country and through catalogs such as Sundance and Uncommon Goods. Samples, discontinued items and other one-of-a-kind treasures are also sold at the retail outlet adjacent to the workshop in Menasha.

Robin Janson’s flair for creative reuse has spawned a couple of other business lines as well. Some time ago, the Jansons began to use discarded vinyl sheeting from roadside billboards as protective covering for their architectural salvage. Soon the team was fashioning chic vinyl purses and backpacks that are still sold in the Urban Evolutions store.

More recently, Robin was intrigued with creating a new clothing line from fabric that would typically be discarded. She teamed with designer friends and leaders at Goodwill North Central Wisconsin to create Goods Made Good. That’s a collection of scarves, skirts, co-ed tie bracelets, belts, shrugs, necklaces, fingerless gloves and home accessories made from donated clothing that goes unpurchased in Goodwill stores.

The clothing and accessories are sold at the Urban Evolutions shop and through trunk shows at Goodwill’s Harmony Cafes in Appleton and Green Bay. An added bonus is that they are produced by Goodwill team members with disabilities or other barriers to employment to help them learn new work skills and earn a paycheck.

Both social workers by training, the Jansons’ passion for reuse has given them a whole new career. Robin sums it up: “We spend our time finding homes for things that people have walked away from.”