Is Sustainable Design a Sustainable Business?

It’s taken more than a century, but a subtle shift has occurred: Furnishing a green home is now much easier.

Corset end tables are made from the old pine beams of a demolished Wisconsin flour mill. (Photo: Courtesy Room & Board)

Maile Pingel is a Los Angeles-based design historian.

My column on the rug industry got me thinking about the furnishings decisions I’ve made since setting up my first apartment in Los Angeles some 15 years ago. We all want to make a home that is comfortable, beautiful, and healthy, but budgets and availability play a big role in what’s realistic. Now, more than ever, there are extraordinary resources for affordable sustainable design. It’s a business that seems to be flourishing in this notoriously challenging time.

Starting out in a new city, I, like so many, went straight to Ikea for all of the basics. Simple and cheap was the goal then, and besides, there weren’t a whole lot of options. A few pieces stuck around for a while, but I’ve long since jettisoned all of them. Some even went directly in the trash. And if mine did, so did millions of others'. Not a nice thing to think about, especially as it was done without hesitation. I just opened the dumpster, and the problem was no longer mine.

A few years later, pieces inherited from my grandmother joined the mix—pieces that I’ve come to think of more as companions than as furniture. They’re not things I’ll likely ever part with; perhaps they’ll be refinished but never tossed. Quality and sentimentality have made them keepers and, by default, green.

When furnishing the apartment I now share with my husband, we merged the best of our belongings (rococo revival–meets–midcentury modern is admittedly an odd combo) and set about finding new, or new to us, pieces that would fill in the gaps. Freshly laid off from Condé Nast in 2010 and wanting to stay within a pretty tight budget, I started looking for options. We wanted to be fiscally smart and environmentally conscious, so vintage seemed the best answer. First stop was the nearby Council Thrift Shop, where I scored a gorgeous 1950s Kashan rug, one of my all-time-greatest finds. Next stop, local design shops such as midcenturyLA and TINI (This Is Not Ikea). We also started exploring estate sales, where we’ve found everything from dining chairs at an opera singer’s home in the Hollywood Hills to Lucite napkin rings that belonged to Elvis’ costume designer.

Older pieces suited us just fine, but we also wanted to find a few new pieces of our very own, furniture we could feel good about buying. We explored all the familiar places, such as Crate & Barrel, West Elm, and Design Within Reach, as well as eco-catalogs like VivaTerra, but we ended up at Room & Board, a founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and a company I’ve long admired. Overall, shopping for sustainably made items proved, to my surprise, easy. Suddenly there were options. Good options.

The issue of readily available and smart (i.e., well-made, environmentally friendly, and affordable) furniture has been a struggle for well over a hundred years. The arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century was really the first attempt at countering the mass-produced furnishings of the Industrial Revolution with thoughtfully and responsibly produced goods; as English furniture maker Ambrose Heal put it, “Better furniture for better times.” The idea of healthy workplaces and laborers who could find joy in their daily tasks was a radical concept. Alas, handmade items are, by their very nature, slow and expensive to produce. The factories won out.

Despite the movement’s failure, when we look at the larger history of 20th-century design (in this country in particular), it’s a remarkably hopeful story. After the First World War, a swell of national pride inspired the colonial revival, with champions like Eleanor Roosevelt founding Val-Kill Industries, a “boutique factory” in Hyde Park, N.Y., that produced historically inspired objects using traditional techniques. After the Second World War, we were introduced to materials such as plywood and fiberglass, thanks to designers like Charles Eames, and to more efficient ways of living through experimental architecture efforts like the Case Study House Program, which continued into the 1960s. Vietnam brought about the counterculture, hippie communes, and the back-to-the-land movement, bringing renewed interest in rural, organic living. That's a greatly simplified history, but one can see the general trend, and that it’s been moving in the right direction: well made, progressive, natural. So where are we now? Despite being in it, the present is sometimes hard to see.

I can recall myriad press releases received during the mid-2000s that highlighted products and destinations that were environmentally friendly, were LEED certified, or had a charitable arm of some sort, but by the end of the decade that began to change, and now it has virtually ceased. It’s as if responsible practices can be assumed. Could my own easy-to-shop-green experience indicate that sustainable design is, at long last, a sustainable business? Has the War on Terror and an economic collapse finally brought us to a more profound understanding of what’s precious, what's finite? Design today—contemporary design—isn’t looking back, it isn’t dreaming of the future, and it isn’t running away. It’s right here, in the present. And there’s nothing as important as now.

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