Vinko Markoski is the co-founder of ND Recycled Timber Furniture, a company that specialises in the production of handmade pieces sourced from reclaimed Australian timber. During our interview we unpack the importance of buying sustainable furniture, what goes into making it, and gain insight into some iconic pieces his team have crafted over the years.

Today I’m joined by Vinko Markoski, co-founder of ND Recycled Timber Furniture, a company based in Victoria, Australia, which produces high-quality furniture from recycled timber. I’d love to get into how you source your materials and the story behind the production process, but let’s take it back to the beginning. Why recycled furniture?

Sustainability is one of the biggest things for a lot of people at the moment. It’s so important to make sure that we look after the world, any way we can.

Vinko: When I was young, an apprentice, I was only 18 years old. And I was a joiner at the time, making windows and doors. By chance, the guy that I work for was using all recycled timber to make these doors and windows. And that just stuck with me, the character in the timber, the fact that it’s very stable, it doesn’t really move. And just the charm of it was what I fell in love with. As the years went by the sustainability side of it kicked in. I thought, hang on, we’re actually doing the right thing here. Rather than getting new materials, especially with forestry and timber from areas in Malaysia, from Indonesia, or these places where, you know, it’s all old growth trees, with wildlife in there, I couldn’t stand that.

Buying a piece of furniture or door or whatever, and not really understanding that it’s got such an environmental impact on animals or things that are out of your control… there’s a lot of marketing hiding that side of it, just to sell a few things. I thought well, okay, our timber is great, Australia’s got so much timber, as far as structural buildings and all that sort of thing and thought, why not use this, this is a great looking product, it’s really sturdy and stable, perfect to make furniture out of. Just having that consciousness about you, to say hey, we’re doing the right thing, looking after the kid’s future and making sure everything is recycled wherever possible. It really clicked with me and I thought, one, I’ll get to do what I love and two, knowing that you can do that while helping everyone. Sustainability is one of the biggest things for a lot of people at the moment, it’s just so important to make sure that we look after the world, any way we can.

Was it immediately obvious that you could make a viable company focused on producing recycled timber furniture?

From my first job, which was windows and doors, right from the very start, it was all recycled timber. I knew all the demolishers that we used to work with, they kept in contact with me. And knowing that the timber was locally sourced, what’s coming in is great quality stuff. I thought, this is us, this is the brand, we have to push that we make quality furniture, but also the sustainability side of it. We’re not chopping down new forests, we’re not chopping down old growth. There are three and four hundred year old trees that don’t need to be touched just for a piece of furniture.

And does using recycled timber significantly alter the production process?

Generally, the recycled materials are a little harder to work with. We have things like old nails, so you have to be really selective in what you actually use. The whole process of pulling nails out of timber is quite hard and time consuming. So that adds to the whole labor side of the job. Eventually you learn what to pick and choose, you aim to choose the best structurally sound timber. You get anything from a really featured, old, rustic looking piece and keep it that way to show its character. Or you can get it almost looking as good as new, because underneath, it’s still a perfectly fine piece of timber. Once you machine it you can get quite a good, clean, consistent look.

You judged it by the customer and in that way you can please pretty much anyone. It is more of a timely process. But it also adds a degree of character, because it’s not all cookie cutter pieces that you’re making. Everything has a sort of signature element about it. In most of the pieces you can see its previous life, that it’s been used somewhere. There’s old nail holes that we fill in and highlight that as a bit of a feature. All the different packs, and all the different timber we get has got a previous life to it that people love and we absolutely love working with.

If we can dive deeper on the point about previous lives for a moment, do you have any interesting stories about where you source the timber from? Any special locations that people might be familiar with?

It’s quite exciting when we do get a special, iconic site that we get our hands on. We think, let’s really show this as not just recycling, but also where it came from and the story behind it.

There’s a couple of iconic sites; we obtained timber from the old roof at the Conservatory at Fitzroy Gardens. They had to upgrade the glass because it was getting old and it wasn’t quite as strong as what it used to be, the beams would no longer hold it. We received a call from the gentleman that was pulling the place down, he didn’t really know what to do with it. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, because it was recycled Oregon. He said, hey, can you use this? We went there and said, yes, definitely, this is us. The Conservatory, in Fitzroy, was rebuilt in the 90s, that’s how old it is. And it looks amazing, we made a bit out of it as a display. And we’ve done a few jobs since then.

We’ve had timber from the MCG previously, from the old seating at the old stands, many years ago. We were adding strips of that seating from the MCG, which had the original old green colour in there. Just having that as something that’s in your piece of furniture, especially a dining table, it tells a story, it’s a talking piece. People remember sitting there with, dad or granddad or whatever. It’s quite exciting when we do get a special, iconic site that we get our hands on. We think, let’s really show this as not just recycling, but also where it came from and the story behind it.

People probably don’t even consider that when buying the more mainstream type of furniture. But as you said, if you’ve got a touch of the MCG in your lounge room, what an amazing story to be able to talk about.

Yeah, definitely. And I guess the beauty and advantage is that it promotes recycling and sustainability. Not only are we using it in a practical piece of furniture that will last a lifetime, but it’s also a cool story that it has had a previous life at the MCG for the last, 70 or eighty years. Then all of a sudden, we’ve given it new life again. It’s really rewarding in that sense of knowing someone’s going to get excited about it, and just having that piece you can show off and say, hey, this is how cool it can be.

I’ve noticed that your furniture has been featured in places such as MasterChef. How did that come about?

MasterChef was a big one for us. People love food, the whole family coming together and cooking, gathering, all that sort of thing. MasterChef approached us and asked if they could use one of our tables on the set as the judging table. We said let’s do it. It was a very clean sort of look, and it that was a custom-built piece. We’ve also done a whole bunch of work for the Commonwealth Bank, at their headquarters in Darling Square, Sydney. Their whole thing was, rather than just building office furniture, and having that cheap melamine look everywhere, they wanted that recycled look about it. They approached us and bought 30 or 40 tables for their boardroom meeting tables. It gave the place character and broke up to the white walls, grey carpet, which is your standard office look. It dressed the place up with these rustic, recycled pieces in there. So that was really nice.

We also did, back in the day, Family Food Fight. That was another cooking-style TV show. Again, they approached us and wanted specific colours, and we helped create their look. It was a rough, industrial style of furniture with plenty of highlighted colours through it. That was another big custom job.

Speaking of big things, are there any milestones or personal achievements working in the sustainable space that you’d like to highlight?

There was one particular piece that I personally am really proud of; a radiogram made out of an old piano. So, the piano was a 1920s, made in New York piano with walnut veneer on it. There’s a great little company out in Keysborough called Pianos Recycled. They recycle as many pianos as they possibly can. In the early 1900s to the 1920s, most Australian homes had standup pianos in them. It was a very common thing. Nowadays, people don’t want them anymore. They’re out of tune and you can’t really tune them up. Most of them ended up going to landfill. Mike and the team at Pianos Recycled promote recycling pianos, and that’s what they do, they pull the whole thing apart, keep all the keys, the timber and everything like that. The Radiogram was part of an exhibition; make whatever you possibly can out of piano and use as many pianos as you could. So, I made this beautiful radiogram that was in our showroom for a couple of years. Everyone absolutely loved it and couldn’t believe that it was made from an old piano that was heading to the rubbish tip. That was a highlight in the way that we make plenty of dining tables, we do plenty of that, but working with a piano that’s got a one mil veneer on there that’s been roughed up over almost a hundred years… trying to save that and trying to make it as beautiful as you can without damaging it was a real standout. That was one of my proudest pieces.

Just the whole concept behind taking something that was once something else, be it a door or as you said, window beams or a piano and then being able to transform that into another shape and give it new life… that is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Yeah, you can pretty much create anything. If you get the right material in to recycle, then there’s always something that you could use. It gets your creative side going, when someone asks if you can make something out of this and you try and work something out. When the radiogram come up, it showed off plenty of the joinery side of things, what we can do with joinery, as well as working with really fragile timber, that was really tricky. I enjoyed that challenge of making it look like something that was not anywhere near an old piano, or you wouldn’t be able to make the link unless I told you, and then showed you photos of the old piano and then the new piece.

I’m imaging you wandering the streets in a ‘Matrix mode’, where you’re looking at things and seeing all the different possibilities, everything around you that you could transform. Seeing potential radiograms everywhere…

Ha, I did a fair bit at first. Time doesn’t always allow you to do what you want, nor how you want. But there’s plenty of ideas going through my mind constantly about that next project or the next piece that we make. Just these little ideas that you think okay, this is what we’ve got and how can we reuse it. Rather than thinking I want to make ‘this’ now I’ve got to go find the right material for it, it’s kind of the other way around. How can we try and use ‘this’ without throwing it out? Or, you know, how can we use it because there’s so many around, it’s such a beautiful timber, especially the old pianos with a millimetre thick of an old burl veneer, which is almost impossible to get. And I think that’s a waste, it’s killing me, I need to, I need to try and do something about this, I want it to happen now. But secondly, we’ve got a few little projects in the back and as soon as we get a spare moment, I want to make something out of this. It’s got to be practical and useful.

So, what’s next for the company? What have you got your sights set on?

We’re in a pretty comfortable spot at the moment, there’s eight of us in the team and we’re quite happy with each other, we’re happy with the size that we’re at. We are busy and would be happy to keep plodding along the way we are. If there’s any chance of getting the word out there or doing whatever we can to promote not only ourselves, but the whole idea of recycling, in any way you possibly can, is a bonus.

For the moment, we’re quite happy with where we’re at. We don’t have bigger plans of growing to a larger scale, we like the intimate, one-on-one that we get with customers. As long as people are happy with what we’re doing, we’ll keep putting along. We’re really happy with the setup that we’ve got at the moment.

You’ve been at this for over a decade now, have you seen the industry change? Has there been a gradual shift toward this style of furniture and the emphasis on sustainability?

If you’re buying it locally, you’re making it locally. It all adds to it being recycled, made local, sourced local. You’re ticking all the boxes in sustainability.

Yes, definitely. I think the last five years was the biggest change. We get a lot of people asking about the origin of the timber we use, where it comes from. People regularly offer us their old bit of furniture that they can’t get rid of, in case we can use the material. Years ago, none of that was asked or bothered about. We try and do as much as we can to reuse whatever we can. So yes, there’s been quite a big shift. People want to know where it’s made as much as the fact that it’s recycled as well.

Also, having recycled timber come from overseas kind of defeats the purpose because by the time you bring it in, you’re lugging it around… If you’re buying it locally, you’re making it locally. It all adds to it being recycled, made local, sourced local. You’re ticking all the boxes in sustainability. More people are waking up to that and saying, before I purchase something, I want to do my homework. They check out the different local companies and see where it’s actually coming from. A lot of the larger companies say they use Australian timber in their advertising, tags on their furniture, but it’s Australian timber made overseas in then brought back in, which we absolutely hate because it’s cheap labor and that has to be the cheekiest thing you could possibly do.

It’s an Australian timber, but the fact that it’s not Australian made, is just a cheeky way, almost an evil way of trying to trick someone into buying ‘Australian timber’, an ‘Australian’ timber piece of furniture, but it’s not actually made here. Whereas if you are sourcing it locally, it’s also usually made here. I don’t see why the greed has to come into it. Making things overseas for cheaper, then bring it back here, all the shipping to and from just to save a few bucks.

It also has so many downstream effects doesn’t it? All the unnecessary transport, taking jobs out of the country, hurting local economies, just to name a few. Is your message to consumers that they should aim to be more educated when making purchases?

Yeah, I think so. Ask the questions. Where is it made? Who’s making it? Where’s the timber sourced? All the important things. It’s the same as fresh produce, or anything that’s imported from overseas. If it’s not in season locally, maybe we should all start considering whether we should be eating it. Let’s see what we can get locally, the local produce. It’s so simple, it makes so much sense. But people still need to wake up. And I think we’re getting there more and more, I see it happening. And it’s big change. People are asking questions of our leaders and saying, this isn’t good enough.

A question we ask all our guests, a tradition of sorts, is about the many challenges we endure today, both individually and as a collective. In your opinion, what do you see as a modern remedy to the issues we are currently facing?

It starts with you and I and everyone else. We have to make the right choices, on a day-to-day basis, as much as we possibly can.

I guess it starts with each individual person, every little, small decision that they make, from buying groceries to taking the kids to school, whether they can ride, or drive… all these choices. It starts with you and I and everyone else. We have to make the right choices, on a day-to-day basis, as much as we possibly can. And then I think leaders will quickly adapt to that, because they’ll have to. When we purchase anything, ask questions, whether it’s your fresh fruit and veg, whether it’s clothing, whatever it is, rather than wait and hope it will be done for us.

We all need to do our bit as much as we possibly can. That’ll be a big step forward and everyone would have to adapt, businesses and industry would have to adapt quickly. Because ultimately, we’re the consumer and if we’re making the choices to say no, we’re not purchasing that or we’re going to go down this other path… I think that’ll be to the way to start it anyway.

How can people find you and get sorted with high quality, sustainable furniture or check out some of the pieces you’ve already made?

Our showroom is at 393 Smith Street in Fitzroy. Come and drop in, take a look at what we do, there’s different samples, different options there. We’re always up for a chat and happy to guide people to make sure we can make the right piece for you. There’s also our website, or shoot us an email and let us know what you’re after.

Vinko this has been an incredible conversation. I’ll have to stop by soon and check out the show room and some of these iconic pieces you’ve mentioned. Thank you so much for your time.

No worries, cheers. ■

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