A small but dedicated salvage team based in Christchurch, The Silvan started out life as an art gallery and café. When their building was lost in the 2011 earthquakes, the team came back fighting, shifting their focus to saving and repurposing beautiful timbers, hand salvaged from damaged buildings. Founders Debra and GT believe in minimising waste and reusing everything they can to make pieces that are practical, beautiful, and full of soul.
What do you make?
We make unique, hand crafted wood creations from hand salvaged Christchurch earthquake timber. The Silvan line up consists of our main maker GT, along with Josh. These guys make and finish our frames, with Debra making the final touches of backing, adding their story and getting them out into the world – every piece they produce has its origins recorded on the back. Yasoda Dulal created the sculpture that has become our icon. All of us have been involved in the timber salvaging and we all take the different rolls to achieve the final products.
Both our daughters are also involved, with Terryn setting up media formats, signage and business cards (helping to shape our look over the years), and our other daughter Jyr attending markets with Debra. We’ve also been lucky to have had friends and builders we know work with us to help salvage and sort, and share timber for their own use. We are passionate about the amazing resources we have been able to save and plan to keep creating until the final piece is used.
How did you get into your craft?
We started a demolition company in the 80s in Christchurch, called Ferry Road Demolition. This ignited our love for repurposing materials. By the early 90s GT had finished his studies at film school, and started his photography, and was about to have his first exhibit when he met Ray. Ray Hastie owned a workshop in Addington, Christchurch, and is an outstanding carpenter. GT asked Ray to help him create him some picture frames for his photography. Ray worked aside GT teaching him to create the frames and unknowingly started a completely new path for us.
In 2005 we opened up The Silvan, an art gallery café on Selwyn Street in Christchurch where we produced and sold the frames on site. Then unfortunately the February 2011 earthquake destroyed our beautiful 1800s brick building. Feeling a little lost and heartbroken we started Silvan Salvage to rescue beautiful timber and materials being liberally wasted and tossed into landfills. We worked hard with our small team for four years, hand salvaging what we could and storing it. We then had the opportunity to be involved in the amazing Whole House Reuse project, that was exhibited at the Canterbury Museum. We worked alongside some amazing people to completely repurpose a whole house, even down to some old socks left on the door step!
It really opened our minds to what we could be creating with all we’d salvaged and saved. We really started to branch out in 2017, trying our take on shadow boxes, trays, bread boards and even tables. We’re still coming up with new ideas daily and looking forward to where we can take The Silvan in the future.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
Our favourite materials to use would have to be native New Zealand timbers. It’s such an amazing experience to be able to preserve and create, using such a precious resource.
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
We start off with the timber, decide what we are going to use it for, cut to size, nail and glue the frame together, sand down the timber (which sometimes excitingly exposes a history of layered paint colours, especially if we are using old weatherboard) and we then apply an oil wax coating. It’s left to dry, heads out of the wood shed to be glazed, the glass is cleaned and backing board applied. Lastly Debs adds the hand written provenance on the back. Then it’s ready for its new venture!
What inspires you?
Currently our inspiration has been coming from the exciting vibe of the rebuild of Christchurch. It’s all coming together as a new exciting city for our future generations. We’ve also always been inspired, in awe and astonishment, by the fantastic creatives we have been lucky to meet, work, and collaborate with on our journey as The Silvan.
Is there a philosophy behind your work? Recycle. Reuse. Repurpose.
We believe it’s so important to be reducing the amount of waste that is heading into landfills, and respecting and protecting the precious resources we have. It’s also very important to us to pass on the history of these amazing buildings and give them new life.
Describe your workspace: Creative chaos!
Your favourite feedback from a customer
It’s really exciting and inspiring to receive photos back from people showing how they have used our work, often in ways we wouldn’t even think of. We also get a real joy from people contacting us from all over the world saying how special it is to take a piece of Christchurch with them.
What are you currently listening to?
We have on repeat a playlist we dedicated to our late friend Lindsay, which is a nostalgic look back at the music over our forty years of friendship. It’s got everything from our friends’ punk bands from the 80s, to The Rolling Stones, and some New Zealand artists like Rhombus and Trinity Roots.
Recommend an album: True by Trinity Roots.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
The Hobbit because it’s such a great story of the adventure of a lifetime.
What are you reading now? The Penguin History of New Zealand, by Michael King.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Amelia Earhart because she was so inspiring, strong and confident and made waves all over the world.
A favourite quote: “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”
Tell us about your pets:
We have four cats we have rescued. Funnily two of them, a brother and sister, were found nestled up in one of our timber piles. We also have our team mate Max the demo dog who always seems to be asleep on the job and only excited for lunchtime.
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
We love to know we supporting hard working New Zealanders like us who are passionate and proud of their craft. Mindless consumerism and fast fashion is polluting our planet and striping our precious resources.
What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
It’s really special to us that from something so horrific and damaging for Christchurch, we have been able to create something unique that will go on to have another life and be treasured while having its history remembered and celebrated. We also feel we are honouring the beautiful trees we use by giving them a true life cycle.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
We purchased some beautiful soap by the Naturalus company at the Christchurch Arts Centre Market, all their products are made by a clinical medical herbalist who specialises in making everything natural and paraben free. They have very similar ideals to us and recycle and reuse wherever they can.
What’s in store for the rest of 2019 and the new year?
We have teamed up with The Hori art gallery in Otaki and have created some large beautiful frames for their Tame Wairere Iti art exhibit. We are also are super busy around this time of year with a lot of fantastic markets and pop up shops coming up and we’re rushing around finishing off orders for Christmas gifts. We’re definitely excited to see what 2020 has in store for us!
Prize draw for Felt readers!
The Silvan team have kindly offered a beautiful prize for one lucky Felt reader, of this gorgeous handmade kauri box (see below), crafted from timber salvaged from an 1800s farmhouse lost to the Christchurch earthquakes. To be in to win this gorgeous piece, leave us a comment below telling us what you love about The Silvan’s story and their work.
The draw closes at 5pm on Monday 9 December and is open to New Zealand residents only. Thank you team!