Exploring the Art of Furniture
words: kim newth images: chris daniels and rick rubens
In 2011, Rick Handel gave up his day job to pursue his passion: to create one-off statement pieces of furniture from reclaimed materials. Trading as Rick Rubens, his high-quality work has rapidly found an appreciative market. Rick also produces unique wall art from his Leithfield workshop. An exhibition in October has established Rick as one of New Zealand’s emerging furniture artists.
WHERE OTHERS SEE BATTERED old furniture, Rick Handel a.k.a. furniture artist extraordinaire Rick Rubens sees potential treasure waiting to be revealed.
What he can do in a week for a tired chest of drawers or a dated-looking sideboard is remarkable. Take, for example, an old oak four-drawer chest that caught his eye not so long ago. What drew him to this retro piece were its oak drawer fronts, solid oak top and interesting curved sides. He added sheets of aluminium veneer and dented these before painting them black and sanding them back. The dated drawer handles were replaced with sturdy new rope handles and oak drawer fronts were restored to show their true innate beauty. It is one example amongst many. Every project is approached differently yet every finished piece bears something of Rick’s personal style.
“I try to look at what I can modernise without losing the retro feel. I like things that are different. I do a lot of faux drawers and I also enjoy experimenting with different materials, such as adding metal strapping or using rope.
“It involves a lot of problem solving. With old furniture, you have to work around what someone else has designed. It is like making a series of prototypes and each one has to be fully functional and work really well. I’m breaking new ground with every piece.”
Born in Birmingham, England, Rick’s family moved to the Isle of Wight when he was six, where his parents ran budget holiday accommodation. Later, his father took up a car dealership. Rick has an older brother and sister so is ‘the baby’ in his family.
His first choice of career was not carpentry, joinery or art. Surprisingly perhaps, most of his working life has been spent in sales. When Rick left school at 16, he enrolled in an engineering course but, by 19, was “disillusioned” and unsure what to do. An opportunity came up for sales and management training with shoe retailers Stead & Simpson; by 20, he was managing a shoe shop with eight staff. From there, he followed his father into the motor trade. “I do not like sales but I was good at it. That’s why I was in it for so long – nearly nineteen years. I did a lot of training with new sales people and became a sales manager latterly.”
Outside his working life, Rick developed an enthusiasm and talent for home renovation. At 21, he completely renovated his first flat. When Rick met his wife Juliane they lived in the flat for a few years before buying some land and building their own house. “We project managed the whole job and it was pretty much my design. When we moved in, there were no doors or skirting boards – it was a shell. We gradually finished it over the following year.”
Needless to say, when the couple moved to New Zealand in 2007 looking for a change of lifestyle and purchased a property at Leithfield with a two-acre garden, Rick was soon planning the makeover. (Juliane was born in NZ and her family had returned to England when she was two, so the move was partially sparked by Juliane’s curiosity to find out more about her country of birth).
Rick has transformed what was a fairly old-fashioned house into a welcoming contemporary home. As well as having new carpet and paint, ‘the Rick Rubens touch’ is in evidence throughout, from a customised headboard in the master bedroom, bevelled joinery and new bulkheads in the kitchen to a one-of-a-kind TV stand of old books topped with a slab of stained timber.
The spa area is an impressive example of his handiwork. With its feature gates, Rick’s recycled art works, stepped up decking and stylish lighting design, it looks as though this upgrade would have cost many thousands of dollars. In fact, the spa was purchased from Trade Me for $500 and Rick estimates the total cost of materials was only $2000. Eighty per cent of the materials were upcycled, including most of the decking. The medieval-style gates are made from internal panelling sourced from a house in Woodend with a handle comprised of a bun foot from a chest of drawers and the spokes reused from a bed headboard.
Both Rick and Juliane have also put many hours into updating the garden with native plants, reshaping borders and establishing a vegetable garden. Rick has built all the hard structures, such as pergolas.
In New Zealand, Rick could have resumed a career in the motor trade industry, but he felt like a change so switched to a sales and marketing managerial role with a rural internet provider.
“Then I decided to go part-time and that’s when I started doing the furniture.”
One of his first pieces, an upcycled set of drawers originally built to house tools, is still in the couple’s home. “Juliane loved it so it has stayed.” Like so many of Rick’s pieces, the drawers had to be rebuilt. It is not unusual for him to literally take a piece of furniture to bits and start again from scratch. “Often the wood is really good but not the manufacture. I try to put things back together so they are better than the original.”
The ‘Rick Rubens’ name was created because he wanted to protect his anonymity online. Now he is being more widely recognised for his work, Rick is happy to maintain what has effectively become a brand name.
It is no cliché to say that the process of furniture metamorphosis is a passion for Rick, a labour of love. He will gladly devote many hours to individual pieces, most of which come from Trade Me, reuse stores or Hurunui Recycling. So far, he has transformed some 150 items of furniture (with the majority of these purchased by North Island clients). His spacious workshop, stocked with various saws and sanders, has dozens of well-organised drawers of tools and hardware for every job.
Creating wall art is another growing interest. These pieces often contain a witty commentary. For example, Flattened literally looks like an old radiogram rolled flat. The playful piece riffs on the idea of radio being trodden flat by the weight of technological advances.
“Fun is definitely part of it,” smiles Rick.
Others strike a more serious note, such as Demolition, depicting a stylised wrecking ball about to strike another blow.
Following an inaugural exhibition of Rick’s work at ID Gallery, Brick Mill, Waikuku in October, Rick now has a permanent space there where his works may be viewed and purchased by the public.
“When I first started doing furniture, I didn’t see it as an art form; I primarily saw it as upcycling. I thought you had to go to art school to be an artist. I never thought my furniture would one day go into a gallery space. Other people have told me that what I am doing is a form of art; I have come to accept that I am a furniture artist.”
More info online at www.rickrubens.co.nz