Ethical Interiors: Sitting comfortably?

Just like fashion, furniture is now about throwaway trends. But the backlash has begun. Josh Sims meets the designers creating a more ethical world of interiors
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The Independent Online

The green-minded diligently separate their glass from their paper and put it out for collection each week. But more often than not little attention is paid to what remains in their homes. They could have used environmentally friendly materials, such as bamboo or cork, for their flooring because it is quickly replenished. The kitchen countertop could be concrete, not because it's trendy but because it emits few chemicals. The walls could have been painted with non-toxic paints.

And the furniture could follow similar principles. Instead, it can seem that more homeowners are falling victim to Ikea Syndrome: just as fast, cheap and foreign manufacturing has brought the advent of disposable fashion, so similar changes to the furniture industry are allowing us to seasonally update our furniture with small regard for where the old stuff goes.

"It's an uphill battle," concedes Paul Donald, founder of Branch ( www.branchhome.com), one of a growing number of specialist online retailers of sustainable homewares. "It's incredibly difficult to compete with products that are attractive and inexpensive, regardless of how 'disposable' they may be, particularly with so many consumers on tight budgets. But there are people who are hungry for products that are more thoughtfully made."

More furniture designers are at least creating pieces that are both eco-friendly and - for the first time - able to compete in functionality and modern good looks with more mainstream, mass-market offerings. None of it can be described as rustic; nor is it from the world of wacky recycling, though of course salvage plays a part. Street fashion label Howies, for instance, recently asked a number of artists and illustrators to customise abandoned wardrobes, turning landfill fodder into collectible one-offs. Similarly, the members of Redesign, a not-for-profit organisation of designer-makers showing as part of the London Design Festival this September, make remarkably sturdy stools from rolled-up newspapers, and armchairs from the ends of dismembered baths. Conversation pieces, certainly, even if you may not fill your home with them.

"It's often these obviously ingenious kinds of 'art' pieces that draw the attention of consumers who have never thought about sustainability in furniture," says Redesign's director Sarah Johnson. "But it's the more subtle pieces, the ones that are to do with the materials used, that will end up changing the way we manufacture furniture and the way we furnish our homes. That's what is yet to come. But it's certainly gathering momentum as it attracts interest from more mainstream designers."

Designers are realising that unless eco-furniture is both practical and something one can live with over the years, their cause may be lost. To date, much eco-furniture has been handmade, so it has carried a premium price. As well putting off consumers, the costs have led to conservative designs. Now that eco-furniture is getting cheaper, the market should explode in creativity and size over the next year, says Josh Dorfman, the founder of Vivavi.com, an online designer and retailer of sustainable homeware.

"Consumers aren't really aware yet that eco-furniture is an option and it's not on even on the radar of most manufacturers. But we're making inroads," he says.

"As with eco-friendly cars, price is the only thing stopping eco-furniture becoming truly pervasive," he adds. "Now materials are becoming more readily available, machine costs are dropping and society is demanding such products, it's only a matter of time."

Self-interest will always be a driving force in ecological issues: furniture that doesn't emit toxic chemicals into the home is a strong sales proposition. But perhaps learning from the eco-fashion movement's experience - that no matter how worthy the garment, nobody will buy it unless it looks good too - eco-furniture makers are now also putting aesthetics on a par with ethics, concentrating their furniture's eco qualities beneath the surface. Beautiful woods, such as bamboo and coconut, reclaimed or from sustainable forests; biodegradable upholstery; eco-friendly Provista plastic; organic bedding; and chemical-free foam are some of the materials being used. Some designers are even developing their own materials: Jane Atfield has made furniture from stacks of industrial felt and tarpaulin-wrapped straw bales but also devised a method to make a kind of plastic chipboard out of old detergent bottles.

Designers are learning to think in a new way. "Between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the environmental impact of a product is 'locked' into the object while in the idea stages of the design," says designer Emiliano Godoy. "From that moment on, any effort to reduce its environmental impact is just fighting problems introduced by the same design team. Being green shouldn't be seen as a restriction. A good designer should be able to produce furniture that is better, cheaper and beautiful, while also being environmentally appropriate."

Many pieces of furniture are being designed so they can be quickly and easily disassembled and the parts can be reused rather than dumped in landfill - 85 per cent of the parts used in the hi-tech office chairs made by US company Humanscale ( www.humanscale.com) are not only recyclable but are made from recycled materials, for instance, and it makes a similar chair to its competitors using half the number of parts. Major manufacturers such as Knoll and Herman Miller are also trying to foster change (Herman Miller's Celle Task chair, for instance, is 99 per cent recyclable). Vitra makes Jasper Morrison-designed stools from sustainably harvested and recyclable cork, while Artek has just produced a range of bamboo furniture by Tom Dixon. Encouragingly, even US retail giants Target and Wal-Mart are rumoured to be considering the launch of eco-furniture lines.

"Contemporary furniture-making now highlights a growing awareness of the responsibilities of designers and makers to ensure that ecological principles are investigated and developed through different routes from furniture made for life, recycled furniture that may have a short life span, to furniture that is multi-functional," says Clare West, the Crafts Council's artistic programming director. "The lessons of eco-design have been internalised by leading designers and manufacturers, to the extent that sustainable production methods and materials are increasingly used as a matter of course."

The question remains as to how quickly shoppers will think in the same way. Few homes can be entirely green: nearly all furniture has a high carbon footprint due to its transportation over long distances. But green concerns are increasingly dictating consumer choice in furniture. "Over just the last three years there has been a boom in interest. And as prices drop and design improves, consumer demand will be much more clearly articulated," says Dorfman. "And that will happen much faster than people are expecting."

RYAN FRANK

The London-based South African product designer Ryan Frank never intended to "go eco", as he puts it. But the internet, and working in the offices of Alsop Architects, introduced him to a growing array of new, ecologically sound materials that encouraged him to experiment. The results include such conceptual designs as the Hackney shelf (comprising boards that Frank left outside to be graffitied and then cut into shape), a coffee table imprinted with commuters' foot marks, Grapple coat racks made from hemp and bio-resin and the Inkuku (Zulu for chicken) chair (below), made from plastic shopping bags. "The scuffs, knocks or abrasions in urban detritus or given to materials as part of the recycling process adds some inherent history, and a grungy edginess," says the designer. "But good looks and functionality are the first elements of a furniture design - these days eco principles should just be a given." www.ryanfrank.net

OLD GINGER

When former marketing executive Fiona Macdiarmid found herself working in a furniture store in Singapore, the idea came to her. Back in the UK, in December 2004 she launched Old Ginger, named after the Indonesian warehouse owner who gathers the reclaimed wood that the company uses to make its modern and classic colonial-style furniture. According to Macdiarmid, reclaimed wood is already "stabilised", meaning that, unlike new wood, it does not have to undergo treatment to drive out moisture. "Some people also expect 'reclaimed wood' to be rustic or rough-hewn," she adds. "But it's really just a raw material. With the right finishing it can look modern - not like old railway sleepers. Customers are asking where their wood is from now." www.oldginger.com

TRANNON

Recognised as a pioneer of eco-furniture, David Colwell set up his company Trannon in mid-Wales some 30 years ago, constructing his clean-lined, geometric designs - everything from sofas to stacking chairs and sideboards - from locally produced ash thinnings grown in sustainable forests. These are trimmed and steam bent, eliminating the energy use that would otherwise be required for kiln-drying. Ash also has the advantage of being tough, self-seeding and plentiful. Colwell, who trained at the Royal College of Art and has his furniture in permanent museum collections, including the Victoria & Albert and the Vitra Design Museum, regards himself as working within the tradition of Windsor or Shaker chairs - also sustainable, and the kind of products that are ecologically sound through being built for long life. "It seems obvious to me that you can't take out more than you put in," says the designer. "Design that isn't about something is vacuous - and sustainability is an aspect of countering that. And it's a challenge to take a stab at improving the environmental performance of anything." www.davidcolwell.com

COMMITTEE

If you are investigating sustainability in design, why not handcraft an expensive piece that plays on stereotyped notions of what sustainable furniture looks like? That was one concept behind Committee's award-winning Kebab lamp (right) - created by skewering a collection of found items on to a pole. It is "an exploration of 'taste' but also refers to the consumption of material goods and the inevitable waste this produces". The married duo that is Committee, Clare Page and Harry Richardson, trained as a machine knitter and cabinet maker respectively, but began designing art-pieces-cum-furniture by reconstituting redundant items. "Design tends to be about glamorising," adds Page. "Sustainable design doesn't have to be 'messy' or complex but that does signify it at the moment. But sustainability should never be an aspect of design to shy away from." Committee's latest design is a bamboo lamp, lacquered so that its organic origins are revealed only on close inspection. www.gallop.co.uk

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