Design, Climate, Action: how to make interior design less wasteful

Working with second-hand pieces and waste streams can make interior design much more sustainable. But how can designers start on this journey?

In interior design – and many other design disciplines – it is much easier to be unsustainable. Buying or otherwise developing custom solutions for a space is often less time- and research-intensive than sourcing second-hand materials and it allows designers to give a clear image of what a project will look like before it has been started.

There are undeniable challenges when trying to work sustainably, according to eco-conscious interior designer Alicia Storie. As well as more technical aspects like sourcing second-hand pieces, using waste materials or environmentally-friendly new ones, there is a fundamental challenge posed when trying to create a space that feels new, out of elements that generally aren’t.

But Storie, who is the founder of her eponymous interiors practice A Design Storie, says these challenges shouldn’t be a deterrent for those committed to designing more sustainably. “I found it more creatively limiting working in a studio on ‘unsustainable’ projects than I do now,” she says.

A Design Storie interiors project

“It definitely requires a bit more co-ordination”

One of the main ways Storie ensures her work is sustainable is through the use of second-hand furniture pieces. Like its fashion equivalent, so-called “fast furniture” is a significant contributor to the climate crisis – according to a study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw out 12 million tons of furniture every year. As so many of these pieces contain multiple different materials, very few are recycled.

It’s a practice that can feel daunting at first, Storie says, but success comes down to knowing where to look. She says she gets much of her furniture for interiors projects comes from furniture warehouses, scrapyards and auctions. For pieces that are damaged, Storie explains she partners with local restorers and up-cyclers.

A Design Storie interiors project. Image courtesy of Megan Redden Photography

“It definitely requires a bit more co-ordination than just buying new,” she says. “But it’s actually not as hard as people think.” One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to second-hand is that it is more expensive, she says. But Storie refutes this, saying the very nature of the places she sources pieces means prices are usually relatively low.

Another misconception that Storie reports as common is the idea that a space can’t be planned if it is fitted out with second-hand furniture. Admittedly, it can be difficult to predict with complete accuracy how a project will look before the sourcing process has begun. But she says it says it is still possible to give very detailed plans to a client.

“There is so much furniture in the second-hand market and once you have a bit of an understanding, it is much easier to predict the kind of pieces that you know you’ll be able to find,” she says. “I don’t think there are many examples of pieces that you wouldn’t be able to find second-hand.”

A Design Storie interiors project

“It just takes intention”

Second-hand furniture isn’t the only way designers are making their interior projects more environmentally friendly. As Rockwell Group partner Shawn Sullivan explains, sustainable and responsibly sourced materials are an important way to ensure a space makes a minimal impact when it comes to climate change.

For Rockwell’s most recent project, 1 Hotel Toronto, the team used “existing structural and reclaimed materials including timber, driftwood, local limestone and native plants”, Sullivan says. These were used across the interiors of the building, from bedrooms to restaurants, the reception and other public areas.

1 Hotel Toronto, by Rockwell Group

Tapping into these supply chains required lots of work with local businesses but he insists it isn’t difficult to source responsibility. “It just takes intention,” he says. One such partnership was with the local woodworking studio Just Be Woodsy, which Sullivan explains has exclusive rights to collecting and reclaiming fallen trees around Toronto. These findings were made into wooden furnishings and furniture pieces for the project.

Rockwell has been involved in several projects recently which Sullivan says points to a changing appetite among clients. Because clients “have an increasing respect for the environmental impact of their spaces”, responsibly sourced materials and sustainable practices are becoming more commonplace, he says.

1 Hotel Toronto, by Rockwell Group

“What will this material let us do?”

Taking a leaf out of the book of the recent Design Museum exhibition Waste Age, another way that some designers are able to challenge unsustainable interior design practise is through intercepting waste streams. London-based design studio GoodWaste’s recent collaboration with department store Selfridges is evidence that materials we would otherwise consider rubbish can be significant resources.

The collection – which saw the studio produce homewares like lamps, vases and candles – was developed using waste produced by Selfridges itself, GoodWaste co-founder Rafael El Baz explains. Being a department store, El Baz says many of the materials the team had to work with were associated with the shop’s fit-outs and so perforated steel and Corian were among the most abundant materials.

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El Baz says the process of developing interiors from waste materials is really just a reverse of what most designers are used to. “Normally as designers, we sit down and ask ourselves what we want to produce and then at a later stage start applying materials and colours and textures based on aesthetics and price,” he explains. “But with this method, we basically sit with a material in front of us and ask: what will this let us do?”

Like Storie, El Baz says it requires research into material properties and behaviours. But he also mentions that learning more about some materials can make it easier to understand others.

1 Hotel Toronto, by Rockwell Group

“It can come with negative connotations”

Intrinsic in the mission of all three designers is the desire to prove that sustainable interior design methods are just as useful and effective as environmentally unfriendly counterparts. “When you’re working with waste it can obviously come with negative connotations,” El Baz says. “But through good design and good material research, we’re trying to show that there really isn’t an aesthetic difference in the outcome.”

It’s a challenge Storie grapples with too, in working with second-hand furniture. “I have some clients who worry that any space that uses second-hand furniture is going to look a certain way,” she says, explaining people are worried about spaces being mismatched, old fashioned or unfashionable. “But actually, using second-hand and vintage pieces can make for some hugely different spaces that vary from room to room,” she says.

“That quality is actually the thing I like best about working this way – there is absolutely no chance this combination of pieces, textures and colours has been done before, or that it will be done again.”

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