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Sustainable Interior Design Made Easy with My Rule of Thirds

Tired of crappy fall-apart retail furniture? SAME. Here’s how I'm bringing an end to fast furniture with my Rule of Thirds.


An example of trendy but cheaply made fast furniture.

Cute? Sure. Trendy? Undoubtedly. Hauled off to the dump in under 5 years? Guaranteed. This is fast furniture.


An unsexy take right out of the gate? Consumer culture imperils our future. We’ve heard of the horrifying effects of the fast fashion industry — from toxic working environments to literal tons of clothing being thrown away each year. 


But the truth is? The home and interior design world isn’t much better. Home influencers promote links for cheaply made, trendy furnishings that look great on a website or on the ‘gram but end up as trash in less than five years. Even “high end” retailers today create shoddy pieces compared to what our parents had access to.


Case in point? Designer and furniture maker Michael Brotman spent years working for big name, luxury furniture retailers before leaving the production line and starting his own sustainable furniture business. When explaining his pivot to the Washington Post he said, “Without giving away any secrets, their margins are high and their quality is not good at all. I had a big discount working there — I didn’t buy anything.” 


Yikes.


And when furnishings are produced cheaply and poorly, they end up in the landfill.


Last October, the New York Times reported, “Each year, Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture, creating mountains of solid waste that have grown 450 percent since 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency”.


It’s enough to make anyone despair and question their place in the industry (I’ve done my fair share of both). 


Or, alternatively, to put blinders on and keep churning out spaces filled with mass-produced furniture because it feels like a losing game.


Easy as that might be — I just can’t.



Heard of Rubber wood? It’s a byproduct of latex manufacturing, prone to rapid decay and it's widely used in mass produced furniture.

Ever heard of Rubberwood? It's marketed as "environmentally friendly" but that's a pretty dubious claim. It’s a byproduct of latex manufacturing, it's prone to rapid decay and it's widely used in mass produced furniture.



As interior designers, we are the gatekeepers of every single item that crosses the thresholds of our clients’ homes. And we are responsible for the impact of those items.


We manage millions of dollars each year in construction materials, labor, and furnishings. Our choices directly affect both the environment within the home — air quality, comfort, and more — as well as the environment at large. We have too much leverage to simply throw in the towel and call it a lost cause. 


We have an obligation to design and build in the most sustainable way possible.


But the reality is: earnestly trying to design interior sustainable spaces is a daunting task. 


There is almost zero oversight or regulation. It feels like the goals are always changing. Most corporate manufacturing processes are fuzzy at best, while some are downright dishonest — see: Big Box furniture brands who claim “sustainable” materials while shipping across the globe and taking advantage of under paid labor. 


And, since none of us have chemistry degrees, much of the measurable research and jargon soars above our heads. We know we should be doing better, but often we’re not sure where to start.



I knew that if I wanted to get serious about designing more sustainably, I had to approach it systematically. With anything in life, you need to set standards and goals. If you don’t, you won’t achieve anything.



And that’s how my Rule of Thirds was born.


Before we dig in though, I want to highlight an important point: I am not an expert.


I don’t have specialized training in sustainable design or architecture. This wasn’t something covered in my education or past design experience. And, if I’m being honest, I would have never thought sustainability would become a driving force in my career even a couple of years ago.


Yet, as I’ve sat on sustainable design event panel recently and been a guest on couple of podcasts, the feedback I get is consistently, “Wow, you know a LOT about this, Patrick.”


I don’t say that to toot my own horn, but to show that anyone can create more sustainable practices and habits. It doesn’t require an accreditation or special certification. This knowledge was built through curiosity and a genuine desire to learn; by asking a lot of questions and nurturing relationships with makers and colleagues who are passionate about sustainable practices in their own businesses.


Over time, I was able to greatly expand my catalog of local vendors and makers and get a much better understanding of what is truly sustainable vs just corporate greenwashing.



We have so many great vintage furniture shops in Los Angeles

We have so many incredible vintage and locally made furniture shops right here in Los Angeles.



So, all that is to say: my Rule of Thirds for sustainable interior design is something anyone can implement. Here’s how it works…


With every project I take on, I made a commitment to ensure that:


  • ⅓ of the furnishings are vintage or reused

  • ⅓ are sustainable, either in makeup or production — ideally both

  • ⅓ are created locally


When we hold ourselves to these standards, it’s amazing how much of an impact we can have.



Let’s break down each category a bit more:


The first category in my Rule of Thirds for sustainability: vintage or reused materials and furnishings


This one is pretty simple: we’re trying to cut back on purchasing and accumulating new things unnecessarily. This might look like:


  • Using a piece they already own that they love. Often, my clients have pieces they’ve purchased or inherited, but they’re unsure how to work them into the design. Maybe it’s in great shape as-is, or maybe it needs refinishing or reupholstering. 


The great news? Typically, these pieces are not only well-constructed, but they have memories tied to them. Maybe it’s something they collected in their travels or a piece that was handed down. One of my favorite pieces in my own home is a chair that was originally owned by my great grandparents. Bringing those bits of nostalgia and history into new spaces is always a win. When we can, we want to use beautiful pieces that are already on hand.


  • Shopping vintage. All over Southern California, there are so many incredible vintage shops. I also love shopping estate sales for quality vintage furniture and decor. 


  • Embracing existing architecture. Not every project needs to be a down-to-the-studs renovation. Oftentimes, there are architectural gems that already exist that just need a bit of finessing or updating. When we can leverage existing elements, we’re preventing construction waste and reducing our footprint.


Vintage furnishings and fixtures bring a sense of history, depth, and soul to a space that you just can’t get with all new pieces. So not only is this good for the environment, it’s good for the design. This is a true win-win.



Antique furniture hunting

I'm always on the hunt for the right piece, the right mix and the right fit.



Next up in my Rule of Thirds: sourcing furnishings that are either made with sustainable materials or sustainable production practices. Ideally both.


This category can feel a little fuzzy. It’s important to remember that it’s hard to get sustainable design “100% right." It’s not typically pass/fail, but rather a question of “how can I make a choice with the least harm.” To determine sustainability in the makeup, there are some key questions we can ask:


  • What are the materials used? There’s a lot of information packed into this simple question. For example, a dining table. We want to know: what type of wood is used? Is it grown and harvested locally, or shipped around the world? Is the wood certified by the FSC? What chemicals are used in the finishing process?


For upholstery, we might ask: what is the frame made out of? How is it constructed? What materials are used in the cushions? What’s the fabric? Are the fibers organically grown? Are the dyes natural or synthetic? 


  • Are there chemicals and VOCs in the paints, finishes, glues, foams, etc that will negatively affect the home’s air quality?


All of these questions help us determine the quality of the piece (i.e. how long it will last), its impact on your home’s air quality, and its impact on the environment at large.


We also want to know about the production practices of the company itself, because sustainability isn’t only about the materials — it’s about the makers. To ensure we’re shopping sustainably, we need to ask:


  • What are the working conditions here? Are people compensated fairly for their work? Are their working conditions safe?


  • How do they ship? Shipping is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so getting some clarity on how a company ships their goods is an important step.


  • How organized is this maker? This might seem like an odd question, but organized companies are more efficient, which means less waste in production. And, typically, I’ve found that the more organized companies are more honest. They do what they say they’re going to do.


The answers to these questions can be hard to get when you’re working with mass-produced items made in Asia. Which brings us to the final category…


The final third for designing more sustainably: sourcing items from a local maker or manufacturer


In LA, we have an astonishing number of products, materials, and furnishings made in our own backyard. I always knew there were quality furniture makers, but even as a design professional, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of construction and finish materials made right here in California, from windows and doors to tile and plumbing fixtures. 


So many of these are family businesses. They’re proud of their products and their processes, and they’re eager to share their stories.


When we shop locally, not only do we cut down on shipping costs and emissions, but we support our local economies, makers, and artisans. 


Shopping locally also allows me to build in-person designer/vendor relationships and visit the workrooms in person. Not only does this give me an insight into the working conditions and let me meet the humans behind the products, but it ensures we always make the best choices in each piece.


For example, if I design a custom sofa, I can swing by while it’s being made and test out a few different cushion heights — actually sit on the pieces themselves — and make a real-time call. You can’t do that when you’re having a piece built across the country or around the globe.



Sustainably made furniture

All of the upholstered items in this space were made locally here in LA by a furniture

company who specializes in sustainably made furniture.



Taking my Rule of Thirds one step further… (this is where it gets really fun)


As you can imagine, many items fall into more than one category. For example, Fireclay Tile is a local company and certified B Corp. They use sustainable practices throughout their entire manufacturing process, from recapturing water to using recycled materials. Their factories and freight also use 100% renewable electricity. So not only does it fit in the “Source Local” third, but it’s in the “Sustainable Production” category, too.


Throughout a project, I keep a tracking guide for all project deliverables that includes the sustainability categorization for each item. If an item falls into one category, it’s color coded Bronze. If, like Fireclay, it falls into two, it earns a Silver. And, if we were to take a client’s vintage furniture piece and have it reupholstered in a naturally-dyed linen by a local maker, it would fall into all three, earning a Gold rating.


At the end of the project, I submit all of this information to the clients. They get a breakdown of how their home did overall, and they can see what percentage of goods fell into the Bronze, Silver, and Gold categories.


And it’s a really great feeling for them. It becomes a point of pride. Because they have tangible, measurable proof that their home is healthier than it would have been with traditional sourcing practices, and that they’ve done a great service to their community and local economy. 


Plus, all of those vintage, local, and custom pieces make their home more unique. Each piece is a talking point and has a story. It’s special, and it’s objectively better.



My Rule of Thirds in practice.

The perfect mix of vintage, locally-made custom and sustainably made furnishings.



The most important aspect of my Rule of Thirds? It’s always evolving and improving.


At the end of every project, I perform an internal evaluation, asking questions like: 

  • How well did we do? 

  • Or, we used this new manufacturer, did they live up to their claims?

  • Are we living up to all of our claims? 

  • How can we do it better on the next project? 


I also have goals to continue shifting our own measurements. For example, eventually, I want each item in the sustainable category to be sustainable in both makeup AND manufacturing. Or, right now our boundary for the “locally made” category is the state of California. But I’m constantly researching and asking: Can we get that to be Los Angeles County? 


With sustainability, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to do what we can, when we can. AND, as we learn, we can keep pushing and stretching ourselves to do a little better each time.



If you walk away from this post remembering one thing, I hope it’s this: sustainable design requires grace and patience.


It’s not a black-and-white process. And we’re going to get it wrong sometimes.


But we can’t let that stop us from trying.


This is about more than furniture and pretty squares on Instagram. We don’t have time to shrug it off or stick our heads in the sand.



My favorite chair in it's 3rd iteration upholstered in sapphire blue leather

One of my personal favorite heirloom pieces, my great grandparent's club chair that I've upholstered in sapphire blue leather. It's been in my family for over 100 years and it looks chic as ever.



U.S. landfills are on pace to be entirely full by 2036 (READ THAT AGAIN). And, according to the EPA, our rates of waste production are increasing year over year, so 2036 might be a conservative estimate. Not to mention, the chemicals used in the production of fast furniture have horrible consequences for our global environment as well as our homes, causing a host of health

problems.



The good news? We have a lot of power here.


  • When shopping for new furniture, be curious, ask questions, research manufacturing practices and reject fast furniture.


  • We can shop vintage or reimagine and give an existing or heirloom piece new life.


  • Take a moment to have a conversation and build relationships with local shops and makers, supporting our local economies and family businesses. 


In doing so, we use our dollars wisely and well. And get better quality products in the process.



If you have questions for me about my Rule of Thirds or sustainable design practices, reach out!


I also recently spoke with Kimberley on the Business of Design podcast about sustainable design, home renovations, and shopping local. Listen to the episode here.


Until next time,


XO,

PE

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