Wednesday, November 5, 2008

ECO-FUSSY...Remarks from DWELL's Modern on the Inside Event

I spoke at the A&D building in NY on the top of family-friendly design. The first part was more about an overarching modernist strategy to designing for a family with chilren. I called it my story as an unlikely modernist. As many of you know, I love old, traditional, historicist design, but I have had a change of heart in many ways....I'll publish this first part in a few days. In the meantime, here is the second part, where I talk about sourcing furniture + finishing products for families, a.k.a, the ECO-FUSSY...

I want to talk about furniture and finishing decisions based on family needs. Although we live in a land of cheerios and baba’s and what to do with diapers as our central problem – the family consumer is actually quite complicated and sophisticated.

Let’s start with our first modern consideration - mother earth. If you weren’t already, having a baby for many of us increases our sensitivity to the earth’s needs and problems. It also makes us more sensitive to the interior nature/environment in our homes. The air, the water, the surfaces – all become important to me as a mother. When I’m talking about eco-friendly, I’m thinking in a rather complicated way about the lifecycle of a product – how was it made and where, is it renewable, is it local, how will it be disposed of, will it biodegrade, can I recycle it? There are, of course compromises, even at this level. So I’m doing my best to choose products where the energy intake and toxin output through their lifecycle – manufacturing – transportation and disposal is minimal.

OK, so earth, check. Not a small check, but moving on. This brings me to the sucking quotient. Not only am I worried about whether that bamboo can be renewed in China, but also when my son suck’s on it, what happens to him. Seriously, I get all kinds of free samples and freebies that people invite me to try in my own home from paint to wallpaper, tiles, trim work, even lighting and draperies. So I always say to them, my son’s gonna suck on it – is that a problem? And typically they tell me that my son couldn’t possibly hurt it because it has XYZ seal or whatever but I want to know, my son’s gonna suck on it, is he gonna be ok? Often it’s a moment of silence with the manufacturer. But that’s changing. I should also say that while children’s toys and children’s furniture is littered with regulation on paint and toxic additives, nothing else is – and when you have a child that goes beyond lying on their back in their personal development – everything else is game for sucking and chewing.

So now, daily life. When you have children, it has to last. It has to last and look good if it’s dirty or sucked on. I call this the daily life quotient. I can’t be constantly scrubbing or replacing it. I can’t be afraid to live on it, around it and through it, and it must be easy to keep it looking good. You know what works beautifully with those parameters. Vinyl and plastic. Oh, but that ruins our earth check. Well, unless its recycled, but then there are the inevitable off-gasses. What’s it gonna cost me to make it baby-bullet-proof?

So that leads us to the money question. Here we are in New York. And I am sure there are even people in this room who have money to burn. But most of the people who come to me – wealthy or not – choose not to burn their own money in their own house. It’s ruins the experience, just a tad when you’ve spent more than you wanted to on a particular room and then your toddler makes a rorchac-esque imprint on the chaise within days of it’s delivery. Generally exorbitant costs and drool in the same breath don’t often make my clients feel good. And I’m not just talking about upfront costs here. I am talking about the long view. Having to remodel and renovate is costly in many ways. What we want is long term value out of any particular design choice. There is raw cost, and lost time, and annoyance, not to mention the fact that if its not done properly, you’re either paying, every time you’re in the space, by kicking yourself, or your paying twice to have it redone. So this is not just about being frugal. Don’t get me wrong, I am the consummate bargain shopper -- they know me by name at IKEA, which is probably a banned word in the A&D building, however this is also about making sound choices so we are only doing it once or at least infrequently. I’m the last person to advocate IKEA for everything, or most things, but I’m also about making choices that will last – for those things that are costly to replace – financially, emotionally and time-wise. So, ok, we need to find something that respects the earth, takes care of our bodies and cleans up well and easily, and if affordable. That’s hard. But that’s it right?

Ah no, it has to look good too! Hello?? That’s why were here. That’s why I have a job. Otherwise we’d also just wear hemp sacks and have hemp slip covers and we’d throwing everything into a boiling hot water caldron at the end of the night. That’s a little too Clan of the Cave Bear for me.

So this is our picture – we have lots that we need to satisfy. Cue the ven diagram.

I’ve been on a heat seeking mission to find home products and really a system for clients to find things for their home which are all of the above. It’s not easy, but the good news there are some creative people with all these sensibilities – green, family, economy, beauty – who are making products and finishes and furniture.

And before I get to specific finishing products – cue the soap box –I have a bee in my bonnet about sustainable design. And in this context I mean design that can stand the test of time. Anytime we’re buying something that will surely only have a limited use, it’s not really sustainable, is it. Anything that has to be soon replaced means that we’re buying and disposing of more. Some of this is inevitable, but I think we are often making choices with respect to children’s furniture, that is about the moment, and not the longer life of the child. Cribs, I totally get. But I believe that when we buy for children, we’re buying for scale and we’re buying for playfulness even more than simply youthfulness. There are lots of choices now that are youthful and playful without being overtly juvenile – which offers a cohesion with the rest of your home and a longer life with your child. There are companies like Offi and P’kolino which are doing a great job at that. So, look for lower pieces, smaller in scale, with a playful, youthful feel to them that work in your child’s room and another room when your child grows up. The promise of most modern design is a sense of simplicity and timeliness, not a timestamp for utility and style.

There are two reasons you would traditionally choose children’s or juvenile furniture. One is that all juvenile furniture has stricter paint/finish regulations because, altogether now, my son will suck on it. But there are many more options today where we can choose furniture that is treated without formaldehyde, in paints without VOCs, etc. You can’t get it at a big chain, most likely, but realize that when you buy children’s furniture, you are buying something for a few years. Modern furniture, to me, as I said before has a streamline and a simplicity that not only keeps its age a secret but sometime it’s intention. Is it a children’s dresser? It’s so low! It’s so simple, it’s white. No, it’s a furniture piece that you can use in a child’s room for a long time, and then use somewhere else in your house when your child goes to college or needs something else. My experience is that buying – phase-based furniture doesn’t work. Once again, if you are going to buy an adult piece rather than a child’s piece – you are buying for the long haul – so finish the job and buy a well made piece that will last through time and also climbing and dive bombs and other general roughhousing.

Let’s wrap up here and talk about a few products which answer to our ven diagram a bit. The first layer I want to talk about is the skin of the room – your walls. Like a dermatologist on a mission to get everyone to wear their sunscreen, I am a huge advocate of the right paint. Unless you live in a glass house, and I’m aware that many people in Manhattan may actually live in a glass penthouse, most of the rest of us are surrounded by painted walls – this is a huge amount of square footage – so the paint you choose – the color you choose – these are all really key to the space feeling good but also being good for you. So if we go back to our ven diagram for paint – it’s go to be the right color. Here is a hint on that – choose a color. Back in the day, pigmentation meant added VOCs (volatile organic compounds) -- not so with newer green paints. Second, it’s got to be non-toxic. No-VOC. Totally doable. Has anyone here been to Green Depot? It’s a wonderful store – they have locations in Brooklyn and Newark, I do not work for them by any means – but they have cool, high-quality stuff that actually meets the criteria we’ve been talking about. Safecoat is the brand at Green Depot which seems to peform as well as traditional VOC-laden paint. Paint is one off those things like life insurance – you can’t really look at how much it costs –you have to look at how much it won’t cost you if you don’t do it. So, I am a big believer in choosing paint that is the highest quality you can afford, and simply painting less frequently. Apartment dweller – make the building use paint of your choosing and pay the difference if need be. All buildlings will have commercial accounts at Janovic or some other paint store – tell them you’ll pay the extra $5/gallon for low/no-VOC or supply the paint yourself.

There are other wall finishing options – as well – for clients who are looking for more of a textured wall – think about earth plaster. There are a bunch of manufacturers of earth plaster which is essentially a surface treatment much like traditional plaster, made of post-industrial aggregate – basically pulverized concrete and other recycled building materials, essentially, dirt and sand. It’s completely natural + green, anti-microbial, and wonderfully kid-friendly. First of all, earth plaster, like other textured wall treatments, creates an imperfect wall surface – meaning that wear and tear will add the textural patina. But also, if you take a crayon to earth plaster, it can usually be rubbed or scrubbed out. And if it can’t, it can be refinished in a small are – you’ll have a very hard time doing that well with paint.

There is also the option of wall paper. I like wall paper more and more for my clients with children. First, there is the option of tilized wall paper. I like this option because, very simply, your wallpaper is a patchwork of wallpaper rectangles or tiles – if one becomes stained or ruined, simply replace tat one tile – rather than replace a stripe that goes floor to ceiling. There are wall papers and corresponding paints that are very earth friendly these days – I love the very earth Cannon and Bullock option. Made of organic products – breathable – and you can go to Green Depot for earth-friendly wall paper adhesive made organic materials.

But this is looking very clan of the cave bear to some of us I know – it’s earthy which is nice and it can be replaced by piece – practical – but what about something more playful? Enter Ollie & Lime. And this segues me to the conversation on sustainable style. The simple prints that are somehow simultaneously quirky and elegant come in a palette of non-traditional children’s hues. There isn’t a pink or blue in the bunch – but instead a very mid-century modern color palette – they are simple, playful and a great option for nurseries and children’s bedrooms, playrooms and even “public” spaces. The product is made from wood from FSC forests in the UK. It comes without adhesive giving you the flexibility to choose, as with the option I listed above, an eco-friendly wallpaper glue.

So let’s talk for the moment about compromise – because there may be people in the audience who think I only need three out of those four. I don’t care how much it costs or how often it needs to be replaced – we need to use the place upstate more anyway. OK. And there may be people who say, “Screw the earth, we can only take care of so much.” And there may be people who say, “I don’t care what it looks like.” Now the people in the last camp, honestly, I don’t know who you are and you scare me. But the people who are willing to give up economic efficiency or earth friendliness – here is good news. There are more products than ever, answering this new slew of needs of ours. Keep asking the questions. And I don’t accept this idea that when children come – functional and safety trump all aesthetics. Part of my self-care as a whole being is to be surrounded by things I love. People, yes, but also the things that I need for daily life which bring me joy because they work well and have appeal colors and textures. Think modern – which means to think about new solutions and new options for age-old problems of storage, safety, cleanliness and beauty with a new family. Good luck!

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