The art of upcycling

Jonathan Ward, the visionary entrepreneur and designer behind ICON, reimagines classic cars within a modern context.

The art of upcycling

Jonathan Ward, the visionary entrepreneur and designer behind ICON, reimagines classic cars within a modern context.

“It used to be that things were built the best they could be to last as long as possible,” says Jonathan Ward, co-founder and CEO of ICON. Not anymore. Since 1990, global car production has doubled, outpacing population growth, and cars are built with shorter lifecycles, meaning that they’ll land in junkyards faster than in the past.

The auto industry has huge recycling potential, as three-quarters of a modern, average car, including most of the steel frame, can be recycled. But Ward is interested in doing the opposite. With recycling, he says, “you take that product and you shred it down and find a use for what’s left of it. But what about taking it and not just maintaining its original intent and function, but what if you elevated it?”

That’s upcycling, and it’s at the heart of ICON’s design ethos. Ward starts with vintage cars, the ones that were built to last, and instead of restoring them, he reimagines them. “We strive to integrate technological components into our designs while still prioritizing the architectural beauty of the original,” he says.

For instance, if a customer wants a classic car with navigation audio, ICON will build it, but without a touch-screen panel that would disrupt the art-deco dash. Instead, they’ll laser-cut and reinterpret the original AM dash center speaker into an articulating robotic panel. “We put a lot of effort into making it look like we did nothing.”

Technology aside, Ward’s eye for detail is what differentiates his work from pure restorations. When he was working on a 1952 DeSoto station wagon, he used reclaimed surplus hardware from WWII planes for the wiring harness and a 1800s-era whiskey bottle he found in a Tennessee riverbed for the radiator’s overflow reservoir.

Once, he was riding in an elevator of an old art deco skyscraper in Chicago that had formerly housed the Playboy headquarters and was so taken with the stainless steel surfacing inside that he tracked down the facilities manager to find out its source. That material was laser cut and used as panels for several of ICON’s projects.

Ward became interested in design as a kid growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York in the late 70s. He and his parents had moved there from Elkridge, Maryland, when he was 7, after his parents took him to an open casting call for Peter Pan on Broadway as a lark, and he landed the role. His new environment had a big influence on his design perspective.

“All of the aspects of design and engineering that were New York City, especially at that time, really opened my eyes to all those millions of details and intricacies from the ephemera to the architecture,” he says.

He was always working with his hands, making sculptures, painting, woodworking. Then when was 15, he moved to Southern California, and got into cars. “When I started, I was just a teenager tinkering in my garage,” he says. “I didn’t know how to rebuild a motor or take apart a car. I just jumped in, and I certainly screwed up plenty of times. I just kept going and kept learning and kept evolving.”

From the beginning, he was drawn to vintage. “I felt a deeper connection to antiquities,” he says. “There just seemed to be more heart and soul, more consideration.”

ICON lets clients choose from a menu of first-generation Ford Broncos, Toyota Land Cruisers, or the 47 to 53 Chevrolet pick-up trucks with a variety of options, and they also take individual requests. A client might call to say that their late grandfather drove a 48 Buick Super and they have fond memories of him coming back from road trips and handing the kids gifts out of the trunk, and that’s the car they want. ICON will hunt down a 48 Buick Super convertible and engineer all the provisions for safety and emissions, but keep the aesthetic true to the original design.

“Ideally, by design, my creations are going to last a long time,” Ward says. “And they’re going to create memories and deeper relationships with their owners that will inspire people to keep an heirloom. I want that permanence. I want that longevity.”

Ward may be just one person, but he’s making a difference. Each year, around 7.6 billion tons of industrial solid waste are generated and disposed of at American industrial facilities. It’s just not sustainable to continue producing, buying, and discarding goods at the current rate.

The power is in the hands of consumers. If we demand better quality, innovation, and sustainability in everything we buy, companies will go back to making things that are meant to last. Meanwhile, buying vintage and salvaged items keeps them out of landfills, and provides an opportunity to upcycle by giving old objects new purpose. In other words: Buy less, and buy better.

“We only have one planet,” Ward says. “We need to protect nature and ensure that it’s there for future generations.”

To learn more about Jonathan's story and the series that inspired the article visit http://NatGeo.com/RewindNature.

Inspired by The North Face's Eco Heritage Collection, REWIND NATURE is a series that springs from our desire to roll back time — to when the Earth was cleaner, cooler, and wilder. The series created in partnership with National Geographic spotlights changemakers who are taking a step forward to reverse the damage we’ve caused to our planet, and brings to light actionable ways to make small changes that have a big impact.

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