Sustainable interior design is a topic that comes up a lot here at Ulterior/Interior. And frankly, it’s a conversation I’m seeing more and more in the inner circles of the interior design world.
So on Earth Day? It feels like a no-brainer to dig into the topic with intention.
As an interior designer, I know that my personal values around sustainability aren’t merely personal.
They’re factored into every design decision I make.
Because while the pinnacle of each project is that final install, and those beautiful interior photos, that can’t be my only goal when creating beautiful interiors.
My work as an interior designer has profound implications for our natural environment as well as the lives and wellbeing of makers and workers around the globe.
Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars on home improvements each year. And these renovations and upgrades produce hundreds of millions of tons of construction waste — not to mention all the former furnishings and accessories that find their way into landfills in the process.
So I’m grateful to see that the design community as a whole is taking a long, hard look at our place in the world. We’re coming to terms with the fact that our profession can absentmindedly feed an unhealthy consumerist machine — OR — provide an opportunity to be agents for change. To create a fairer, more just world with a sustainable path to empowering artisans and creating beautiful spaces that are a true win for everyone.
Even if my impact as one individual feels small in the grand scheme of things, the fact is: I am the decision-maker for millions of dollars worth of goods and services each year.
So each design decision I make matters.
And while it’s certainly not a perfect process, I’m constantly learning, asking questions, and researching to add more sustainable companies and vendors to my network.
What does “sustainability” really mean in interior design?
The answer here might seem pretty obvious, but sustainable design decisions go far beyond the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. And while big brands are quick to tout their products as earth-friendly, it’s not as straightforward as selecting a material simply because it’s ‘greener’.
As I source products and fixtures, I do my best to research and consider:
Raw materials — What materials are used? How are they grown and harvested?
Production — Where is this made? How? Who is making it? How are they treated and compensated?
Shipping — How far does this item need to travel around the globe? Is it produced start to finish in one location, or are there multiple stops along the way?
Chemicals used — If it’s plant-based, what pesticides are involved? What adhesives, additives, and other chemicals are used? How might this impact indoor air quality in my clients’ homes?
Life cycle of each product — How durable is this product? How long can we expect it to last? And at the end of its life, then what?
This list is in no way comprehensive, but even the points above are easily overwhelming! I mean, I’m not a chemist, and I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the production processes that take place halfway around the world. So trying to choose sustainable pieces can feel impossible sometimes. It really comes down to research and relationships. Digging into a company’s website and product information to find out about their ethos and their process. And asking fellow designers about their experiences with vendors and brands.
But here’s the easiest way I’ve found to shop sustainably for my interior design clients.
While large retailers (here’s looking at you, Restoration Hardware) may claim sustainability as a corporate value, the fact is, they thrive off of creating overpriced pieces that aren’t built to stand the test of time. They have a vested interest in selling disposable products that customers have to keep replacing.
Sustainable design often feels like this big, tangled web of decisions — and it can be — but the simplest, most impactful way to shop sustainably for your home is to shop locally as often as possible.
Not only does this support small businesses and your own local economy, which is more important than ever before, but it gives you answers to those tricky questions above. When you connect with passionate makers who care about sustainability too, they know their processes and communicate them clearly.
They know how their materials are sourced and processed.
They know how their products are shipped (or, if they’re made locally, there’s no shipping required at all!)
They can — and are often excited to — explain their process from start to finish. You may even get a demonstration or two.
And when you support local makers and builders who hire locally, it’s easier to know and trust that their employees are treated well, because they’re motivated to keep skilled workers happy. Plus, I can pop into their shop and see the working conditions for myself.
I’ve learned so, so much about sustainability from my trusted network of local makers and artisans over the years.
They’re proud of the work they do, and rightfully so. And this shows in the quality of their product. You might be surprised to learn what local makers and companies exist in your community. L.A. has some incredible upholsterers and furniture makers. Way more than people realize. And I love shopping my local, eco-friendly paint store for every project.
So my clients get beautiful, responsibly sourced products for their homes that support local entrepreneurs and artisans and are gentler on the environment.
Shopping sustainably here in L.A.
Admittedly, despite the best of intentions, it’s not always possible to find what you need and want from a local shop. Sometimes that means expanding my search to other parts of the world.
But other times? That’s when I shop vintage.
Southern CA — especially along the coast and in smaller towns off the beaten path — has a phenomenal assortment of vintage shops. But my favorite sourcing secret? Estate sales.
In Bel Aire, Beverly Hills, and Encino I’ve stumbled upon treasures for pennies on the dollar — a $250 vase that, after researching, I realize would have cost $1,200 retail. Or a great pair of Terje Ekstrøm’s Ekstrem chairs with their original fabric for a steal.
There are amazing finds to be had if you know what you’re looking for. And these vintage pieces are what give interiors a sense of soul.
The most sustainable way to design your home
Vintage doesn’t need to be reserved for decor and accessories, though. Some of my favorite pieces of all time are vintage furnishings, whether family heirlooms or dreamy finds at an estate sale. In my opinion, every space needs some vintage elements.
I’ve found this can give some clients pause, though. To some, ‘vintage’ feels dated, old, or drab. But when you’re connected with skilled artisans, it’s absolutely incredible to refinish and reupholster these pieces and give them new life.
And then you not only have a sustainable, beautiful conversation piece in your home, but you’ve got this layer of history. Vintage pieces, especially your own, have such a story and a richness. They evoke memories of Christmas mornings on the sofa with your grandmother. Or in my case, reading the morning paper with grandpa in his favorite leather club chair, which I now own.
To me, that’s what makes a home feel lived in, unique, and unexpected.
And the cherry on top? You’re designing a home thoughtfully and sustainably, with pieces to last and cherish for a lifetime.
Until next time,