IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN BUT IT'S GETTING EASIER
by LINDA MATCHAN, The Boston Globe - May 18, 2006
Jeannette Kearney believes in sustainable design. So when she and her husband, Craig Reingold, moved here from California three years ago and built a house in Lexington, they decided to go green all the way.
They used environmentally friendly materials, like bamboo for the floors because it's quickly replenished; and wheatboard cabinets because they're formaldehyde-free. They installed a concrete countertop in the kitchen because it doesn't emit, or "off-gas," many chemicals, and painted the walls with nontoxic paints. Just for fun, she installed a colorful mosaic made from recycled glass in the foyer floor.
Then came the hard part. Furnishing it.
"There's so little out there, and you have to work so hard" to find it, says Kearney, who loves modern design and was not inclined to adorn her new home with the kind of rustic fare artfully arranged tree twigs, for example "that you'd see in Vermont next to the organic maple syrup or organic long johns. I'm not a hippie in a long flowing skirt." Far from it. "I'm more streamlined, and tailored, and trendy," she says. So, why, she wonders, can't organic be trendy?
Actually it can. Out of the blue, it seems, a green world of "eco design" is moving into the mainstream, propelled by a growing number of ecologically conscious home furnishing designers who believe that environmentally conscious design does not equal ugly design.
"The majority of people hear the term "green design," and they think of the '60s and '70s and flower power and composting, and a legacy of products that looked like they were made of salvaged pieces people picked up on the street," says David Bergman of Fire & Water, an environmentally conscious lighting and furniture company in New York.
But this notion is changing fast. New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair, which runs from Saturday to Tuesday, is showcasing the work of six New York furniture and lighting designers, including Bergman, who call themselves Green6. They are part of a growing movement that aims to align contemporary aesthetics and innovative design with environmental awareness.
Coincidentally, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is kicking off an exhibition Saturday on green home design. It features a full-size, furnished green house, which speaks to the same point that "going green doesn't mean you have to go weird," says Donald Albrecht, lead curator of the show, called "The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design." "You don't have to throw everything you own out. It doesn't have to be done out of recycled tires."
Meanwhile, the mainstream magazine Country Home has just named a new editor-at-large "eco-stylist" Danny Seo, 28, who advises on eco- chic ways to entertain and decorate. (Ideas: Use a painted garden urn and pot as a pedestal table base; and chalkboard paint to update an old refrigerator.)
Yet even though the green movement has found its way into other mainstream lifestyle niches eco-gardening, eco-apparel, eco-tourism the furniture market has been slow to catch on, with the exception of a handful of independent designers and ecologically minded retailers. Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, which has a showroom in Boston's South End, uses woods from sustainable forests, and foam that doesn't emit toxic chemicals. Herman Miller's Celle task chair, available at such stores as Design Within Reach, is 99 percent recyclable: It's built to be disassembled quickly, so the components can be reused and the rest of the chair doesn't end up as landfill. Furnature, in Watertown, sells organic bedding and biodegradable upholstered furniture made without any synthetic materials.
Now, finally, "it's become possible to have a realistic conversation [about environmentally conscious home furnishings] and back it up with design," says Green6 member Josh Dorfman, founder of Vivavi, a manufacturer and retailer of green home furnishings. "Prior to that, we went by what I call the "burlap sack theory" the idea that environmentally friendly products don't have to look very good, they're just meant to be environmentally friendly. Well, that was good enough for the great, great, great minority, but it was, like, 10 people, and they all live in Santa Cruz."
The Green6 designers are banking on the idea that the world outside of Santa Cruz, Calif., is ready for them. For the most part, these designers come out of art or design backgrounds, not environmentalism, and their work reflects varying shades of green. In Bergman's work lighting design he uses nontoxic finishes, and he stays away from incandescent bulbs because "they use a lot of electricity," he says.
For others, the "greenness" is expressed in the materials they use. Andrew Moe of Moe Design Studio uses reclaimed wood or lumber from forests that have been certified as sustainable. Mark Righter at Cambium Studio salvages materials that might otherwise "hit the chipper or end up in a landfill," he says, such as framing timber from industrial buildings that are being converted into SoHo lofts.
Dorfman is introducing an angular, minimalist lounge chair and ottoman at the furniture fair with a frame made of bamboo and natural latex cushions that aren't chemically treated. But it's definitely not of the "burlap sack" school of design.
"No one in this kind of group is preaching," he says. "It is beautiful design, really smart, and intelligent. It's comfortable and it's not toxic and your kids can bite it. It's an entirely different approach to communicating environmentalism."
The way Kearney, the Lexington homeowner, sees it, it's about time. Kearney, who is allergic to certain chemicals used in furniture construction, finally resorted to ordering custom-made furniture for her house. She's assiduously overseen the construction details the organic latex stuffing, the safe-washed fabrics, the sustainable woods. It's been time-consuming and costly, and the furniture takes months to arrive.
And even with that, she still wonders: How green is green enough? Is bamboo still green if fuel is consumed when it's shipped from China? When you're installing environmentally friendly wall tiles, must the grout be green too?
"You choose your battles," says Kearney, who, as a lark, designated her main floor powder room as the "toxic room." She's covered the countertop with cowhide and painted the walls with silver paint high in volatile organic compounds.
"I can't take it too seriously or I'd get crazy," Kearney says, laughing. "I figure, if nothing else, I can always shut the door and let it off-gas."
Shopping for green furniture is hard enough, but it's even harder if you don't speak the language. Here are some key buzzwords to get you started. L.M.
Imprecise catchall term, like Carb Lite. Generally refers to products or practices that are healthy, water-, energy-, and resource-efficient, and don't negatively affect air quality. Hardcore green types would stipulate that the product or practice doesn't do any harm to the planet, use anything that's irreplaceable, or depend on low-wage workers for processing.
Often used interchangeably with "green." Refers to the continued viability of a product or practice, and is generally used in connection with big-picture, global issues,
such as global warming.
Material that was used before and has been salvaged for another purpose. A close cousin of "recycled."
Energy expended in producing a product, from start to finish. Includes the energy used in extracting the raw materials, transporting the product via 18-wheeler, the manufacturing process, and the "end of life" consequence: When the product is no longer used, is it recycled or dumped in a landfill? The less embodied energy it has, the greener it is.
Bad. The toxic, smelly fumes emitted by chemicals, paints, adhesives, and other building materials.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs):
Also bad. The chemicals that cause the off-gassing. The higher the VOC level, the less green the product.