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The Week in Sustainable Design (10/02/05)

(A warm welcome to Jill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich, from Inhabitat, on their first Sustainability Sundays post! -- Jamais)

We're thrilled to be joining up with the phenomenal forces behind Worldchanging. For our first foray into bringing sustainable design to the Worldchanging table, we've done a roundup of some of our top picks in furniture design.

From renewable resources like cork and bamboo, to recycled waste products pulled from dumpsters, to new materials such as fiber-optic threads and Homasote, designers are going to great lengths to promote environmental sustainability while furthering the evolution of design. As sustainability climbs up the priority list for consumers and manufacturers alike, we're seeing increased availability and decreased cost for eco-friendly home furnishings. What's more, the clean, modern presentation that defines contemporary design is finally permeating what was once an aesthetically-challenged movement, giving sustainability the sexiness it requires to gain mass appeal. These are some favorites from the last several months:


Matt Gagnon is an exceptionally talented Brooklyn-based designer. He was recently featured in the New York Times for his eco-conscious NYC loft renovation. Gagnon's Paper table is made of laser-cut recycled sheet paper (Homasote-brand) that has been bolted together, sanded and finished with oil. The piece becomes interactive when you fill the gaps in the table with your current reading materials. "Since it’s basically made of old magazines, the addition of new ones completes it again,” said Gagnon. What’s more instantly gratifying than seeing the entire recycling process come full-circle, all within the confines of your coffee table?



Not only is Daniel Michalik's cork furniture flexible, ergonomic and attractive, it is also made from recycled cork from the bottle stopper industry, making it as environmentally-friendly as it is people-friendly. Cork is an engaging, tactile material which is completely sustainable, recyclable, and renewable. Also, because cork is 100% waterproof and impervious to rot and mold growth, these pieces function as well outdoors as inside.



We can't stop talking (and blogging) about Scrapile - and that is because they are hands down our favorite green furniture designers. Designers Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt have turned their love for discarded wood scraps into innovative, environmentally friendly furniture such as tables, benches, and chairs. The two collect scraps from local woodshops, and piece them together using non-toxic water-soluble glue – preventing wood from piling up in local landfills. Due to the fabrication process, no two pieces of furniture are the same, but every piece has their trademark striated style.



Hauptman Product's reSeat chairs are created from the reconstituted-wood manufacturing process used to create strong and sturdy shipping pallets. The wood used is North American Aspen due to its growth speed and self-regenerating characteristics. I also love HPI's steel cafe tables which are designed to go with the reSeat chairs. They have a groove section for wheat-grass, allowing you to integrate a bit of green directly onto your table.



54Dean is a Brooklyn based design duo making some remarkable furniture. The studio's Georgie Bench (named after George Nelson's famous slat bench), is made with sustainability in mind, thanks to a waste conscious construction process and building materials consisting of nothing but bamboo and stainless steel.



And now for something literally green: Ready Made magazine is a fantastic resource for do-it-yourself home projects. Most of them can be environmentally-friendly, since you select the components and assemble them yourself. You can have this grassy lounger in your yard by following Ready Made's instructions for growing a sod-couch (organically, of course).


This is more of an experimental student project then something you can find in a design shop, but I thought it was so cool it was worth a mention. Two innovative RCA students have come up with a table that emits sunlight from its surface. Threaded with tiny fiber-optic cables that create a "sunlight display grid" on its surface, the Sunlight Table is designed to bring natural light into workspaces. The fiber-optic cables embedded in the wood table connect to an input grid placed over a window. Light and shade are transmitted from the panel through the fibers and into the table. Movement outside the window, such as passing birds or shifting clouds, brings a little bit of the outside world back to the user.

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What fun! Thanks Jill and Sarah!

Posted by: Liz on 2 Oct 05

Cool projects. Along with the "know-how" can you also tell us about the "know-why"? That is, can you explain the underlying *need* of each of these designs?

Posted by: David Foley on 2 Oct 05

Those are awesome! If only each little item's price wasn't 7 figures. Guess that doesn't apply to the sod couch. That thing's great, though. The bunnies currently invading my yard would love it.

Posted by: Lake on 2 Oct 05

Each "little item" as you so disparagingly put it, is designed and hand made. That effort takes time and money. As does finding alternative materials. The movement has to start somewhere. Until demand catches up, these "little items" are also produced in smaller quantities. Another factor affecting cost. If you want mass produced cheap goods go to ikea. These posts arent about you and whether or not you can afford these "little items". It is about supporting artists in their endeavors to make our world better through design. When it catches on and mass production is sustainable then yes the prices will go down as well.

Posted by: PYT on 3 Oct 05

I write about so-called sustainable products ( and enjoyed reading about these designs, but also have the suspicion that high-priced furniture isn't really that important for our planet's long term. Now if we could dream up some really renewable, sustainable, convenient and beautiful PACKAGING for all the stuff we take home, whether it is from IKEA or the design boutique down the street, now that would be world changing.

Posted by: April on 4 Oct 05

I agree with these folks. It's so discouraging to read about these great products and click-through only to find I will never, ever be able to afford them. I also question the poster who says, demand is not high enough. If you make a compelling product at a compelling price, it will be purchased. What needs to happen is for a mass-retailer to get some social responsibility and start subsidizing these products. Target could sell the crap out that scrapile stuff, but not at $2K plus. If the designers teamed up with Target and streamlined the manufacturing the pice would come down.

Posted by: David Connell on 4 Oct 05

Really, peanut gallery.
Worldchanging readers, of all people, shouldn't need to be told that when you buy underpriced goods, it's because you are dealing in some kind of exploitation. Not only are quality hand-made goods more expensive, they are unique. You can have one unique, beautiful couch or 4 Ikea couches, all at 1/4 the price. From the standpoint of sustainability and our throughput, throw-away culture (to say nothing of our appreciation of art) we could afford - literally - to rethink the way we consume.

As for packaging, look at these links about bioplastics, a field which needs only a little more push from oil prices to take off.

Posted by: Justus on 5 Oct 05

I buy stuff made from waste wood and such.. its called walmart special;/ Garranteed not to be made with vergin wood or anything else worth more then 5 cents either for that matter....

Posted by: wintermane on 5 Oct 05


We have been following your commentary throughout the week and compiling a many-layered response to your thoughts and criticisms. Thank you for taking the time to consider and opine.

One of your greatest concerns/criticisms surrounds the prohibitive cost of many of these items. The designers we showcased, in general, are artists. The items they produce are highly functional, but/and they are also individually handcrafted, meticulously refined pieces of art, not mass-produced, identical throwaway pieces for the “big box” superstore market.

Do we hope that mass-production of affordable, sustainable furniture will soon be common? Absolutely. But as “Justus” pointed out, most mass production at the present time is inextricably linked to social injustice, exploitation and the inevitable pollution that results from mass-transport of items from the factory to the retail outlet.

For the time being, the labor that goes into something like a Scrapile table is extremely localized and involves few workers. These two guys drive around New York looking for scraps; then they cut, glue and fashion everything together by hand in their workshop. If the process was standardized, scraps were consistently available from regular sources, labor was outsourced, etc, it would be much cheaper (although possibly not as interesting.) Until demand sets the standard for fair labor, purchasing cheap goods usually means supporting some pretty nasty systems.

It’s also useful to look at historical trends in introducing new concepts and items to the market. Almost everything is a luxury item at first—refrigerators, cars, televisions, computers—these were not things that your average consumer could afford when they first came out. But as recognition of their value drove up demand, they became affordable, and commonplace. Let’s hope that happens for sustainable goods.

The “Know-Why”:
As for the “underlying *need*” of each of these designs…While we agree that furniture may not be as basic a need as food and shelter, it is certainly something that people spend a lot of time and money on. Very few people exist in unfurnished homes or offices. The furniture industry consumes an immense amount of natural resources, particularly endangered tropical hardwoods. Furniture accounts for the largest usage of tropical hardwoods in the U.S. If all furniture were made out of recycled or renewable materials, this would make an enormously positive impact on environmental conservation.

Granted, not everyone needs or wants pricey, high-end furniture. But there will always be a market for both the high-end collector and the economical shopper. Right now, the economical shopper often lacks the luxury to shop responsibly, whether it is for furniture, clothing, food, or transport. I think all of us hope that our efforts now will set the stage for a future in which responsible consumption will be a no-brainer.

Thanks again for presenting your opinions and voicing your challenges. We love the feedback. Keep it coming!

Jill and Sarah

Posted by: Sarah and Jill on 6 Oct 05



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