SEAT OF POWER: Furniture restorer Jay Blades in his Wolverhampton warehouse
WHEN I meet Jay Blades he’s ecstatic as he pulls out samples of beautiful fabric from a large cardboard box, which has just arrived at his warehouse. It’s an Aladdin’s Cave of stunning ex-showroom samples and ends of rolls that have been donated to his charity by the London-based top design centre Chelsea Harbour.
He’s fizzing with excitement about what he can create with them all – and I realise that his enthusiasm is infectious. I understand how this man has the ability to turn around young people’s lives.
For Hackney-born Jay, his Wolverhampton base, known as Jay & Co is where he teaches youngsters to re-work or ‘upcycle’ old chairs and other furniture which in turn helps them to make money while learning restoration skills.
He shows young people how to get a life away from crime and anti-social behaviour, while getting back their self-esteem, which for many is something they’ve never experienced before.
“A guy the other day told me that I’d inspired ‘a road man’ to go legit, and that for me is a real success story,” smiled Jay, as he sorted through his new fabrics.
He’s proud of the fact that he has a 98 per cent success rate with young people. Jay told
“OK, the other two per cent might end up in prison, but the rest do well. I’ve had some real success stories – such as Leigh-Anne Pinnock (pictured below), who is part of the girl group Little Mix, who won The X Factor a few years ago.
“If I sat down some of these kids and said: ‘Right, I’m going to teach you how to restore old furniture’, they’d think that was boring rubbish. But if I say I’m going to show you how to make money from nothing, then they’re interested.”
'Making money from nothing' is exactly what Jay shows them how to do – find a couple of old chairs that are either being thrown out or dumped at the local tip, give them a new lease of life through upholstery and a coat of paint, then sell them to people prepared to pay the right price for furniture that has been lovingly restored.
Jay has social media contacts second to none with at least 20,000 followers and he knows how to sell online. He’s proud of the fact that he’s sold secondhand furniture at Heals in London, adding that he’s been the only person allowed to do so.
Some of his re-worked pieces are indeed stunning and they come with an interesting history, like the group of beautiful steel chairs sitting in his warehouse that once graced a US submarine. Now they have been restored with classy ruby velvet seats and lime green velvet arms.
The undersides of the chairs are also just as important to Jay and usually have some quirky fabric on the bottom when you turn them upside down.
Many chairs carry Jay’s trademark of one leg having been painted a different colour.
“I never create stuff here that I wouldn’t have in my own house,” he says proudly.
“If I’m not happy with it, then we don’t sell it.”
He makes sure that the young people he’s supporting have the best possible training, such as being taught the lost art of re-caning chairs by master craftsmen.
“I had one 92-year-old guy who taught them how to cane chairs – that was a quite funny – he was an ex-copper teaching kids, some who’d been on the wrong side of the law and others who’d been excluded.”
Contrary to many perceptions, Jay says the young people he deals with are hardworking and focused because they want to make money and he has shown them how they can do it. He tells me:
“I want to be the Jamie Oliver of furniture restoration.”
He jokes that his whole philosophy is to work himself out of a job by passing on his restoration skills. These days he’s passing on tips to a much wider audience as he’s in demand for TV shows such as BBC1’s Money for Nothing programme where people make money from discarded items. Jay has gone from programme participant to a presenter on the popular daytime programme. He’s been a real hit, dispensing quirky advice such as Hoovering sandpaper to make it last longer. He’s also appeared on TV programmes with both Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer (pictured above) of Channel 4's Location, Location, Location.
There’s no doubt his charismatic style could take him far – he jokes about always painting in good clothes because he says it makes you more careful with the paint, making it last longer. He also remains grounded, explaining he’s always been a community worker first.
His forthright manner was picked up on years ago by a senior police officer in Oxfordshire who invited him to join the force’s race relations panel. Jay then went on to found Street Dreams, where he became “a microphone for young people” who he helped to discuss issues with police on neutral territory.
From there, with his now ex-wife, he launched the award-winning social enterprise Out of the Dark, a High Wycombe-based furniture charity, giving disadvantaged youngsters the chance to learn the practical skills to earn money. Sadly, the business closed when the relationship with his wife broke down and he headed for Wolverhampton about a year ago.
“I found people here in Wolverhampton a lot friendlier,” he explained.
“I also like the town’s motto: ‘Out of Darkness Cometh Light.’ I’ve been lucky, thanks to the help of a beautiful family here, who helped me to get back on my feet again.
“For me it’s always been about so much more than just the furniture – I can relate to kids who’ve had tough times because I’ve had them too. It’s not just about recycling chairs – it’s about recycling lives too.”
Contact Jay at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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