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Trash into Treasures

Perhaps more than residents of most other cities, New Orleanians like to flaunt their hometown. Pride of place is one of the reasons they like wearing Jazz Fest T-shirts and fleur-de-lis jewelry, particularly when they travel. It’s why they enjoy showing off shotgun houses and centuries-old buildings to guests from out of town. And it’s one of the reasons that every household in the city likely sports a stash of Mardi Gras beads.

Cheap and tacky? Maybe. But purple, green and gold beads say “New Orleans” like almost nothing else can, which is why items made from Mardi Gras beads are popular with locals and visitors alike.

Heather MacFarlane and Mark Kirk began tapping into that popularity about nine years ago when they started creating attractive “new” items from the city’s favorite trinkets. Trained in printmaking and tapestries, MacFarlane had also previously worked with melted plastics. “When I moved here, I saw a free resource hanging off the trees,” she says.

A native of Scotland, MacFarlane met Kirk, an Englishman, in New Orleans in the 1990s, and they soon teamed up on a business that specializes in recycling found materials, particularly plastic items, that locals relegate to the trash. They began by melting and shaping Mardi Gras beads into holiday ornaments. Today, their tiny shop in the Irish Channel displays an array of home décor and personal items made from the stuff that others fling from parade floats. “We think we’re obsessed with melting things,” MacFarlane quips.

Hanging lanterns, free-standing lamps and wall sconces have become some of the best-known merchandise at Unique Products, as the pair named the boutique, which resides in a small loft above another Magazine Street store.

Kirk is Unique Products’ “light man.” He begins his creations by laying out beads in large baking pans in colors and shapes based on his hand-drawn designs; then he melts the designs in a kitchen oven just to the point that he can bend or shape them as needed. Some are left flat and then made into four-sided lanterns, joined at the edges with a blowtorch. Others are curved into graceful sconces or half-globes that will become standing or hanging lamps.

One of Kirk’s most popular flights of whimsy is the Jellyfish Light, two half-globes joined together with cascading tendrils of beads attached at the edges. Patrons of Jacques-Imo’s Cafe may recall the designs because the restaurant was an early adapter of the unusual lights.

Since Hurricane Katrina, MacFarlane and Kirk have taken their creative recycling in popular new directions — FEMA blue and MRE tote bags, for instance. The first are made from the “blue roof” tarpaulin and the latter from plastic envelopes that held the ready-to-eat meals that were ubiquitous in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The pair’s water meter clocks also have become hot items. The clocks are made from roofing tin that has been silk-screened with the familiar Sewerage & Water Board emblem that appears on every water meter in the city.

Another post-Katrina creation that has become a signature is one MacFarlane and Kirk concocted on the fly. In late August 2005, the two — unaware of an approaching storm — traveled to Memphis for a wedding. They also were slated to do a showing of their wares in Memphis a few weeks later. Finding themselves suddenly exiled by the storm and facing an exhibit deadline with no merchandise to display, they had to wing it.

“There was a record store nearby, and we decided to try melting the vinyl into interesting shapes,” MacFarlane says. They made the old records into wavy bowls, magazine racks, clocks, trays, bracelets and even Carnival masks. The result: The arty vinyl was and is a hit.

In addition to their shop, MacFarlane and Kirk sell artifacts-turned-art at galleries, art markets and events around town and the region. This year they will display their bead lights at Jazz Fest for the first time. And they plan to rely more heavily on Web site marketing, particularly to show off small items such as the rings and other jewelry MacFarlane has begun making by fusing together layers of colored glass.
As they broaden their reach, they intend to maintain their focus on recycling existing materials into fun new products. “New Orleans is — at long last —beginning to think ‘green,’ and we want to be part of that,” MacFarlane says.

Heather MacFarlane and Mark Kirk own Unique Products, 2038 Magazine St., 529-2441, www.letsgetup.com. Selected items are also available at www.neworleanscraftmafia.com and www.uniqueproducts.etsy.com.

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