Adam Hills and Maria Speake met in architecture school in Scotland and bonded over not what they saw being erected but what they observed being destroyed. The couple honed their ability to identify treasure in what others considered trash by establishing Retrouvius, a small salvage business, in Glasgow in 1993.
Five years later, they moved to London and developed a unique twofold approach to the industry: Hills identifies and collects raw materials, while Speake works directly with clients to realize complete domestic, retail, and restaurant projects, sourcing everything from furniture to final touches like curtains and accessories. The firm now occupies two neighboring 2,500-square-foot storefronts (with another warehouse down the street) full of rescues, many of which have storied lineages—like a recent collection of mahogany panels from London’s Natural History Museum. Pedigree, however, plays second fiddle to quality. “As long as it’s something that deserves a second life, I don’t really mind what it is or where it came from,” Hills says.
What drew you to salvage?
Maria Speake: When we started, we were more interested in the conservation aspect. It’s madness, the incredible quality of materials literally being junked—things you couldn’t get again because they just don’t exist or would be too expensive to use.
Adam Hills: Take a simple slab of granite siding: When you consider the effort of removing it from the mountain, cutting it, polishing it, and transporting it—there’s an embodied value there that shouldn’t just be flippantly destroyed.How do you source your materials?AH: I’d love to say that after 18 years I have a well-organized database of every building undergoing work, but it’s frustratingly random. Sometimes I find a site just biking down the street. Any triumphs you’re proud of?AH: I was at a dinner party with a stonemason who told me about this limestone fossil flooring in Heathrow’s Terminal 2. I kept my eye on it for years, and plans were eventually announced to redesign the space. I tracked down the foreman, went to see him on day one of demolition, and offered him a sum for the floor.Any particular challenges?MS: A lot of our stock looks like nothing until it’s reused. Often I’ll present an idea to a client and they’ll say, “This is quite a leap of faith you’re expecting.” And it is. But the more times you do it, the more confident and successful examples you can show.
Conservation is a hot topic. Do you see its popularity gaining?AH: I don’t think the concept of ecological reuse will go out of fashion anytime soon. However, it seems the emphasis lately is on recycling, where, say, a load of bricks are crushed up and used for a road. I would argue for using the brick as a brick.How does a critical mass of materials, or lack thereof, dictate buying?AH: Sometimes we’re satisfying an existing market, but creating a market is more challenging and enjoyable. I like to buy massive quantities of something unfashionable and give it an angle so that people go “Aha. Cool, we can use that.”And if you hadn’t?AH: Two hundred tons of that rare stone would be in a landfill. That’s really rewarding.