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Publication Date: 2011-12-19

Design Insights

Creating an Eco-Chic Space

These days, going ‘green’ has many permutations and possibilities—it can be as instant as swapping incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient CFLs, or as intensive as building a LEED-certified house. Whatever your commitment level and budget, incorporating eco-friendly practices and furnishings into your home is easier and more appealing than ever, as a growing fleet of designers create products that are as environmentally sensitive as they are beautiful. Here, some strategies for creating an eco-chic home.

Image: Lawson-Fenning

Invest in Your Furniture

One of the most ‘green’ things you can do is invest in products that will stand the test of time—and hang on to them for many years. “Green design has to have staying power,” notes Sean Robins, co-founder of Studio Van den Akker, which makes handcrafted, made-to-order tables, case goods, and seating. “Not only should the design be timeless, but the product has to be constructed in a way that will provide decades—or more—of use. If something is constructed in a less-than-ideal way, it may break or need to be refinished, and these repairs all have an environmental cost associated with them.” Even more likely, the broken piece will end up on the sidewalk—and eventually a landfill.

Buying a low-cost table made out of particleboard may be cheap in the short term, but it carries a hefty environmental price tag. So when shopping, ask yourself: Is this piece built to last? Will it age gracefully? Designer Glenn Lawson of the furniture company Lawson-Fenning has put this philosophy into practice: “We try to make all our pieces classic so that they work well in a variety of interiors, but also become something you can live with for a long time. I’ve always loved the idea that people are buying our pieces to hand down to their kids. Furniture should be an investment.”

Image: Studio Van Den Akker

Buy Local

Another important consideration is where a piece is made. “It’s important to have a global understanding of green design,” says Robins. “If you buy an eco-friendly sofa in Paris and have it shipped back to your home in California, so many greenhouse gasses have been produced to get it back to your living room that it negates the ‘eco-friendliness’ of the sofa in the first place.” Today many designers are aware of the environmental impact of the materials they select, and the factories they work with. Studio Van den Akker handcrafts all their pieces in the United States, while Lawson-Fenning manufactures their entire line in Los Angeles—“within 15 miles of my house!” says Lawson. As a consumer, buying locally means that in addition to saving on the costs, packaging, and emissions that come with long-distance shipping, you are stimulating your local economy.

Embrace Reclaimed and Found Materials

Though you can fake patina, it’s far more authentic—not to mention earth-friendly—to simply start with something old. The Philadelphia-based company Groundwork builds contemporary tables, planters, and other furnishings out of reclaimed wood and found materials sourced from Pennsylvania barns, factories, and mills. “We’re conscious of sustainability, but it’s not why we take this approach,” says co-founder Brian Foster. “We love the beauty of worn wood that has been trampled on by horses for a hundred years, and old marble pavers with centuries of wear.” Foster seeks out architectural salvage yards everywhere he travels, and suggests that eco-aware design-seekers follow his lead. “Just Google ‘architectural salvage,’” he advises. “You can find amazing things—old bathroom tiles that you can top a table with, industrial fragments you can use as a table base.” To give them an updated look, he suggests coating the furnishings with low- or zero-VOC paints for a fresh look. If you’re updating your living space, consider the afterlife of items you plan to discard. “Try to find everything a home,” urges Lawson. “One of the biggest problems I see is people ripping out perfectly good materials and fixtures and throwing them away. So wasteful!” Robins concurs, pointing out that “existing furniture does not create any new toxins and does not diminish valuable resources.” It’s a wise move aesthetically as well. “Many contemporary designs compliment vintage furniture very well,” he says. I think interiors that effectively mix both tend to be more nuanced and layered—more interesting to look at and live in.”


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