Organic solutions Research and tenacity results in a line of chemical-free furniture for allergy sufferers
by Patti Doten, The Boston Globe - May 7, 1998
Fred and Barry Shapiro had good reason to celebrate. Armed with a bottle of champagne, the president and senior vice president of Furnature in Brighton jumped into Fred's car three years ago and followed one of their trucks to Belmont, where they were going to deliver a sofa to a client.
They don't usually accompany such deliveries and certainly don't send along bottles of champagne.
But this was no ordinary sofa. The Shapiros, first cousins once removed, had spent the preceding 3 1/2 years researching and then assembling this sofa -- an upholstered piece that was completely chemical-free. The client was a woman suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity. "She was standing in the door laughing because Fred had turned his bullhorn on, and it was playing some tune to announce our arrival," says Barry, 45. "Then we opened up the champagne and all three of us cried. It had taken us so long to make that sofa."
What took so long was extensive research into the appropriate wood, spring system, padding, barrier cloth, and fabric that would make the sofa completely organic. But their efforts paid off. For the first time in years, their client was able to sit on a comfortable sofa, stretch out, and read, instead of sitting on cotton blankets draped over the seat of a stiff wooden chair. "The sofa made this woman so happy that Fred and I looked at one another that day and said we've got to do more of this," says Barry, who joined Fred a decade ago as a furniture designer.
Today Barry devotes all his time to Furnature while Fred oversees the Fabric Showroom, a furniture and fabric store started by his father 73 years ago, and the discount fabric stores, Freddy Farkel's Outlets, which are run by his daughter. The Shapiros' venture into chemical-free furniture began five years ago. "I didn't know anything about environmental illness but after talking to this woman, I felt sorry for her," says Barry. He told her he would attempt to make her a comfortable, chemical-free sofa. "She lived in a lovely house but there was nothing in it. She became ill right after moving into the home and blames the collapse of her immune system on the pesticides used by exterminators," he said. What she wanted most, she said, was a sofa where she could curl up and watch TV or fall asleep. "She wanted to feel normal."
That challenge became irresistible for the Shapiros, whose dialogue during a recent interview is akin to listening to the "Car Talk" radio-show duo, Click and Clack.
Fred: "We became sympathetic to her."
Barry: "It became a challenge and she was the motivating force."
Fred: "We knew we weren't going to make any money on it."
Barry: "It was about being creative and problem-solving."
Fred: "We had to find ingredients that were organic and chemical free."
Barry: "And we had to take into account that people who are chemically sensitive are not sensitive to the same things."
Fred: "So we started with what woods to use and knew they had to be nonaromatic, like hard rock maple."
That was the first decision. Then they turned to springs that would create a seating system that did not require the use of such fibers as nonorganic jute to hold it together. They eventually found an all-metal-and-steel system manufactured in Sweden. And because foam rubber is filled with chemicals, the Shapiros looked for organic cotton batting to be used as padding. "In some parts of Texas, the weather is cool enough so the cotton defoliates without using chemical sprays to kill the leaves when the cotton is ready to pick," says Barry, who studied advertising before transferring to Massachusetts College of Art, where he studied sculpting. "So that's where we get our cotton. The Department of Agriculture certifies all the cotton in the state, so we're assured that the cotton we buy is 100 percent organically grown."
The same is true of all outer fabrics used by Furnature. "Before we put on the outer fabric," says Barry, "we encapsulate everything in a chemical-free barrier cloth to make our pieces mite- proof. And although a client can either have a sofa or chair upholstered or slipcovered, we recommend slipcovers because they can be washed." Before custom-making a piece of furniture or mattress, the Shapiros send a kit to each client filled with samples of all the materials to be used -- wood, fabrics, zipper, welt cord and thread, and springs. This way a customer can smell the ingredients and see whether he or she has any reaction to the cottons or woods. The kits and instructions are on recycled paper and the ink is made from soybeans.
"I desperately wanted new furniture because ours was more than 20 years old, but with my allergies I was reluctant to bring anything new into the house," says Esther Breif, a writer and psychologist from Newton. "Then I found out about Furnature and met with Barry, and he seemed to know what he was talking about. I've ordered a sofa, chair, and ottoman from them and two mattresses. I also had my dining room chairs reupholstered and because I didn't like the neutral cotton fabrics, Barry worked with me and we found a place that would make me 100 percent velvet cotton in navy blue."
The final challenge for the Shapiros was in the shipping. How could they transport the pristine pieces without picking up pesticides from the inside of rental trucks? They considered delivering furniture in their own trucks but a national plan was cost-prohibitive. So they decided to make a "body bag" out of barrier cloth. "We drop the furniture or mattress into the body bag and zip it up like a cocoon," says Fred. "Then we wrap it in brown Kraft paper and shrink-wrap it. Shrink wrap is like Saran Wrap and acts like a plastic cover. This prevents any toxic fumes from getting on the furniture and also stops moisture from seeping in." And finally, white gloves are sent to clients to give to the delivery men before they carry the furniture into the house. That way, says Barry, everything remains "as pure as pure can be.