WHEN GORDIE WORNOFF finds a broken aluminum ladder on the roadside, he turns it into table or chair legs. He’d use a discarded pine futon to make a window or molding. In a grocer’s garbage, he could probably find something for his next meal.
Wornoff is a second generation carpenter who’s been dumpster diving and freecycling since he was a teenager. Today he owns A Higher Plane, a Toronto-based home renovation company that specializes in reclaimed materials and alternative furniture. Using his talents to salvage various items that our waste-prone culture deems as junk, he is now regarded as an artist, he stars on the Discovery Channel’s Junk Raiders (now in its third season) and he has been recognized by Earth Day Canada with the 2012 Hometown Hero – Small Business Award.
What Wornoff does is not just about creating art or making a buck – it’s a lifestyle. “I like to preserve and keep things out of landfill. Our culture can be so wasteful and heinous. Planned obsolescence is repulsive,” he says. “But I’m also kind of a geek when it comes to stuff I find. I really like old-time stuff that was made in Canada, back when things were still manufactured here.”
Wornoff grew up on a farm just outside of Peterborough, Ontario, and learned the family woodworking business before studying journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. His passion for living off the land has been a natural progression.
“When I finished school I tried to get a journalism job, but it wasn’t working,” he says. “So I got into stone masonry to pay the bills. I just stuck with the trades because it was way easier to get work.”
While in school, he became heavily involved in environmental and anti-war activism, which eventually led him to building houses out of straw bales and tires. “It seemed like an effective form of activism … to be more proactive by building things rather than complaining about them,” he laughs.
The move from salvaging building materials to create what he refers to as “junk art” came about in a peculiar way. One night in the fall of 2005, Wornoff was driving to Ottawa and he came across a deer that had just been killed on the highway. He thought the antlers were really neat, but instead of simply cutting them off he decided to salvage the meat as well.
Having grown up hunting, Wornoff knew how to gut and clean the animal right there on the side of the road. “I had a good plan and I knew what I was doing. I still had about an hour to drive, so I went to a Tim Hortons to ask for a couple of buckets of water because, you know, you have to wash the blood out or it will taint the meat.”
Of course, because he had blood up to his elbows, he was promptly asked to leave. But as he was making his way back to his car he heard a “pssst” from the back door. “One of the ladies gave me buckets of water and said that her father was a hunter and [she] knew what was going on,” says Wornoff.
Along with the meat, he was also able to salvage the bones, which he ended up using to make a deer-bone chandelier for the first apartment he and his wife rented when they moved to Toronto in 2006. “It had 13 candles on it – you know, for good luck,” he says. “It came out pretty nice and it was all free. After that I was super stoked about making more art.”
He now shares a workshop in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood with five other artists – four metal workers and a carpenter – a couple of blocks away from his home. For supplies, he cruises the downtown neighbourhoods, jumps at any opportunity to salvage wood and metal from renovation or demolition sites, hits auctions, surfs the free section on craigslist.org, and has a few rural farmer connections with some unique, long-forgotten items.
“Metal and wood are two really great resources because they can be welded, drilled, cut and shaped. They are really easy to work with,” says Wornoff.
The furniture in his downtown apartment illustrates how he puts reclaimed finds to use. The coffee table has arching aluminum ladder legs, a recycled mantle has been turned into a cabinet, and there’s a grocery cart transformed into a comfy chair out on the front porch.
In a back storage room – where garlic is hanging everywhere – square-head nails line the windowsill and there are shelves full of odds and ends that he’s collected. Wornoff pulls out two long metal pieces. “These were used for big die threading,” he says. “I got them at an auction for five dollars. They could have been sold for scrap, but I can see furniture being made out of it someday. They’re so funky it hurts.”
For his renovation business, the reclaimed materials are now a selling point because more people are becoming interested in alternative designs. But Wornoff only offers what he can collect. “I try to be sensible with my materials and quote jobs with what I have,” he explains. “Like eating in season is big right now, I try to build in season by using materials I’ve acquired from a clean source. If I have reclaimed oak, I’ll pitch that rather than cherry or some tropical wood that I’d
need to buy and is clear-cut from a
Most recently, he’s landed a couple of gigs building furniture for gala events. The first was TD’s second annual GreenCeption, where more than 200 executives and employees celebrated their environmental efforts. Among many pieces for this event, Wornoff made a telephone-themed coffee table out of wood from a reclaimed utility pole and accented it with parts from old rotary phones. He cut a side off of an old claw foot tub and added a cushion to create a couch, and all the cocktail tables were made out of doors reclaimed from an old house that was being demolished. He also made a bench from hardcover books, sealing them together with a technique similar to brickwork and using an old barn trestle for legs.
“When I did this TD job, everyone started calling me an artist,” he smiles. “A guy from Earth Day saw my stuff there and said ‘I really like your art, would you do some for our event?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am an artist and I will do some art for your event.’”
For the Earth Day Canada gala in June 2012, Wornoff says he snapped off some real beauties, but that his most compelling creation was what he called the Windsor, Ontario chair. Using the back of a Windsor chair, he added some antennas for accents, a slab of birch for the seat and old automotive springs for legs.
The event was hosted by the Drake Hotel in Toronto’s trendy west end. Among the many highlights of the evening for Wornoff – including, of course, being honoured with an Earth Day Canada award – was meeting musician Sarah Harmer. “She’s an amazing environmentalist and I totally respect everything she does. I offered her any piece of furniture she liked and she picked a chair I made out of an oil drum.”
Flipping through his book of concept drawings, Wornoff reflects on his lifestyle and the recent opportunities he’s had. “I like the direction this is going. This is anti-elite furniture made from stuff that’s accessible and available everywhere.”
Seen through Wornoff’s eyes, our landfills and trash bins are brimming with opportunity.
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