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How to pimp your student room for cheap

Light artist and designer Kay Swart works with used materials and waste. From flat irons to wood pallets: nothing is too crazy for Mr. Handyman. ‘Less costs, more functionality, and way more awesomeness.’


He calls it upcycling: to revive old material into new products. Designer Kay Swarts’ products are practical, original, and in his own words, always inspired by the needs of the client. In his workshop at the Gorechtkade in Groningen he has an easy answer to the question how students can save space in their rooms. ‘Everything is possible’, Kay says, ‘as long as you know what it is that you want.’
Anything you can imagine: Kay probably already made it. Lamps, couches, coat racks… as long as it meets his holy trinity of criteria: effective, practical and simple. Objects are cleverly transformed into products with a completely different objective. Empty milk bottles serve as lampshades, a wooden reel is now a table, magnets from a hard disk turn into a coat rack. ‘Keep it simple, and there’s not much that can go wrong.’


The chain wardrobe
We want to test his expertise and decide to set the bar high. What’s the simplest and cheapest way to store your clothes? Kay looks up and strokes his beard. A smile appears on his face, with a gesture he invites us to follow him to the spare room.
‘Look around you. What do you notice?’
No clue, we shrug our shoulders. With a theatrical gesture Mr. Handyman points at the wall. Shirts, dresses and T-shirts hang from coat hangers which in turn hang from a metal chain on the wall.
‘Is this simple, or is this simple? No locker or dresser necessary, all you need is a chain wardrobe.’ Kay enjoys our surprised faces. It doesn’t get any easier. All you need is a metal chain, coat hangers, and one screw. ‘You can find a decent chain at Maxx (outlet store in Gelkingestraat). Just drill a hole in the wall at a height of about two-and-a-half meters. Put a good wall plug and bolt in the hole and you’re ready to go! You still don’t have enough space? Put an extra chain on the wall.’ But the clothes are unprotected now, so what about smoking? ‘Just. Don’t’, says Kay, ‘not in the spare room at least.’


Pallet shoe cabinet
Kay points at something behind us. ‘I can imagine that shoe storage is another problem that students have to deal with. Look, we take a nice wooden pallet. Available in many garbage containers at building sites, or via (Dutch version of eBay) if you are not that adventurous.’ Behind the door we see what he means: a wooden pallet is attached to the wall. The space between the planks is filled with shoes. Just press the nose of the shoe in and it remains in place.
‘This is a little bit more work.’ Kay looks serious now. ‘Now you have to drill two instead of one hole in the wall.’ He smiles. ‘Just attach it well… here and… here.’He points at the upper corners. ‘And here is not a bad idea neither.’ He points at the bottom middle of the pallet. ‘A wall shoe cabinet, so to speak. Saves space, it’s ideal.’ He’s right. We see high heels as well as work boots.


From pub owner to designer
So far, so good. We are impressed with the speed at which our host launches his solutions. Where does this infinite source of fantasy and inventiveness come from? He has not always been a designer, we find out. Actually, Kay only started about a year ago. Before this, he was a pub owner in Franeker (small city in the Province of Friesland). After seventeen years in the hospitality sector, he’d had enough. ‘It was time for something else.’ He took his tendency to think practical along with him, though. ‘Entrepreneurship is thinking from scarcity. Approach things in different ways. Having little money is an incentive to use your imagination. Cocktail tables for instance, you know? Those high ones. They are really expensive. But an empty oil barrel costs about twenty euro. You make a table top with some wood you find at a construction site, and you can create a table and garbage can simultaneously.’ He shrugs his shoulders. ‘Less costs, more functionality, and way more awesomeness.’


Pallet coat rack
We are still standing in front of the pallet shoe cabinet. It is one of his first designs. ‘If I had to do it all over again…’ Kay slides his finger across the wood. ‘I would polish it. It would make it much more sexy.’ He points at grain in the wood. It’s dead silent for a moment. Then he points his finger up and puts his safety glasses on. The pallet has triggered his imagination. Are we really witnessing a eureka-moment? Yes, we are! He quickly walks to his office and comes back with a Flex tool. ‘Time for the real deal.’
Two hours and ten minutes later we are looking at a coat rack. Mr. Handyman enthusiastically demonstrates how efficient his new piece of furniture is. ‘Normally you can hang about five to six coats on a rack. Right?’ We nod in agreement. ‘This one can hold at least ten coats. And imagine the amount of scarfs, hats and caps you can put into it.’ He points at the space between the wall and the pallet. ‘Enough space for everything.’ A nod, a smile, a finger pointed in our direction.
‘We say goodbye to our host. He looks at the clock and is suddenly in a hurry. Amsterdam waits, he has a couple of jobs to do there. We are allowed to share his ideas. The chain wardrobe and pallet shoe cabinet are part of his household. The pallet coat rack is a different story though. ‘That’s a gift for you. I do have to polish it a bit more though.’ He casts a critical eye on the piece of furniture on his desk. ‘It needs a bit of a vintage touch. I will come up with something this weekend.’
So we get to keep it? ‘Indeed!’ Kay turns around and puts his coat on. ‘Or actually, I mean no. You can give it away to a student house. I will personally visit them to install it. Deal?’ Deal!


You want to have this original pallet coat rack in your student house? Send an email to!


Text: Teodor Lazarov

Photos: Jasper Bolderdijk (c)