BBC Antiques Roadshow specialist Marc Allum takes a look at the trend for upcycling antique and vintage luggage.
We may need to use lightweight, wheel-along luggage that conforms to the rigorous rules and strict measurements of the sometimes draconian budget airlines, but we still hanker after the battered, weather-worn leather trunks and cases of yesteryear. Yet, today’s regulations are not a completely new phenomenon. With the advent of commercialised travel, particularly the boom of railways in the mid-19th century and mass transportation on reliable ocean-going liners, universal travel took on a more regimented and less haphazard form. The production of luggage increased enormously to deal with this new-found mobility and catalogues of the period give an interesting insight into the myriad trunks, portmanteaus and bags that were available. Here too, are plenty of ‘regulation’ P&O, ‘troopship’ and ‘universal’ trunks designed to ‘fit under any steamship berth’, so, a type of conformity was already necessary and would have been essential when you think of the huge number of people and their possessions that were moving around the globe in the name of imperialism, war, immigration and good old-fashioned tourism. By the post-war period a new glamorous era was also beginning to evolve in the form of air travel. That Catch Me if You Can look spawned a new type of fashion luggage. Plaid cases and ‘clam-shell’ carry-ons became the look and vintage Samsonites covered in colourful airline luggage labels are now very popular amongst fashionistas.
However, it’s a joke we often make in the antiques trade, when confronted by extremely heavy trunks, the assumption being that the wealthy had no concerns about the size and weight of their luggage because there’d always be some poor over-worked porter or servant to carry it. When you see the size of some of these trunks, particularly the ‘wardrobe’ variety made to house dresses, in all their bustled glory, you’ll understand what I mean. However, despite there being an element of truth in this, modern lightweight materials weren’t available. These days, we have the option. Most of us know that we can fuse modern materials with a sense of style to carry around rather more practical pieces, yet we’re still very interested in the sense of nostalgia associated with many antique and vintage examples. Consider how many families still have an old wartime demob case? I still have one.
It’s this sense of nostalgia that’s led to the huge trend for upcycling vintage and antique luggage. I remember staying at Blakes Hotel in the 1990s – Anouska Hemple’s boutique masterpiece – and loving the idea that an antique Louis Vuitton trunk had been re-purposed as a coffee table. Trunks are quite awkward. They don’t generally suit our contemporary way of living. Usually, they are relegated to the attic or the garage and stuffed with Christmas decorations but more recent trends have seen them popularly re-invented as stylish coffee tables, giving them new vigour and purpose. Louis Vuitton trunks are the Rolls Royce of the genre and I’ve valued several quite scruffy examples for several thousand pounds in recent years. As such, they are now a ‘must have’ interior design item which fuses their luxury branding appeal, history and style with a look that has become timelessly de rigueur. If these are beyond your price range, a piece of plate glass can quite easily transform a £25 auction purchase into a good-looking TV dinner table. Even the Antiques Roadshow now uses stacks of old trunks as part of its set for displaying objects.
Bags and luggage varieties are almost endless. The Victorians had a designated case or bag for virtually every conceivable use. However, the upcycling and monetary value of these pieces can depend on exactly what they were originally made for. Some of these uses are now unfamiliar to ‘modern-day’ travellers and the idea of a ‘Fin Semaine Portmanteau’, a mule pannier or a zinc-lined airtight case ‘for India and China’ seems like a throwback to another century – which indeed it is, yet shrewd people have latched onto the idea of re-purposing many of these redundant impedimenta. I remember in my early days of auctioneering, several buyers who specialised in populating shop windows and traditional pub interiors with displays of leather luggage and brass. Fashions have since changed, along with the demise of the vernacular pub interior – it’s all Farrow & Ball these days – yet good luggage still seems to command reasonable prices in the saleroom. This – in part – has been fuelled by a vintage revival; the savvy shop keepers that sell this style are wise to the art of mixing luggage and tweed in the same space, ultimately playing on our sense of nostalgia for retro fittings and clothing. Luggage has effectively become furniture and no one can deny that a selection of shiny mink-oiled antique leather cases look good on top of a wardrobe – valuable storage space too.
So, how far does this sense of innovation and reinvention go? To be honest, some of the quirkier ideas are a little ephemeral. Dog and cat beds made from 1950s suitcases are fun – who knows whether they have any longevity or are just a fashionable for now? Ideas often run their course quite rapidly and fashion can be surprisingly transient. That said, I like the almost temporary sense of some crazes; bedside tables fashioned from stacks of luggage, although slightly whacky, appeal to my eclectic nature. Hannah Plumb and James Russel, working collectively as James Plumb, are perhaps the epitome of a new breed of artist/furnishers who merge both a witty and enigmatic sense of history and combine it with a sensitive aesthetic based on repurposing objects that are unloved and forgotten. Much copied, their re-purposed luggage furniture has become the model for many imitators. I also like up-cycled luggage wall shelves and bathroom cabinets and cocktail cabinets made from old trunks. To be honest, imagination is the only limit and thinking outside of the box – if you’ll excuse the pun – allows anyone with a basic practical ability to adapt old luggage into whatever may suit – sets of screw-on legs cost under ten pounds online.
Yet for all that originality and creative reassessment of these often humble everyday objects, I still remain a bit of purist and will no doubt always relish the idea of feeding my neatly displayed antique portmanteaus, boot cases and Gladstone bags with a good old-fashioned dose of Neatsfoot or Mink Oil. After all, you can’t beat a traditional recipe – nor the smell!