Some makers take environmentally friendly approach with furniture
Ensuring that organic design isn’t all we have left to remember Mother Earth by, some manufacturers at this fall’s International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C., have committed to saving the planet one table at a time.
To make a difference, they’re using renewable resources and environmentally friendly construction methods while closely monitoring their suppliers’ reforestation practices.
Gerry Cooklin, founder and CEO of South Cone Furniture Co., is one who is taking the initiative. His love of the outdoors turned him from naturalist to activist.
“It started in 1997 on a camping trip. A tree literally talked to me and said ‘You should do something,’” he said.
Mr. Cooklin, a native of Peru, named his company for the cone shape of South America. Headquartered in California, South Cone is the largest furniture manufacturer in Peru and a leader in the industry in its use of environmentally responsible practices.
Besides becoming the first company to have Forest Stewardship Council certification, South Cone has worked with the Rainforest Alliance to ensure that all the wood his company uses is harvested in a manner that does the least damage to the surrounding habitat.
“Over 50 percent of all the wood we buy for our factories in Peru and Argentina is FSC-certified, but only about 20 percent of our pieces of furniture meet the minimum content requirement,” said a company spokesperson.
That second statistic reflects the limited number of sources of FSC-certified wood, he said. As the demand for FSC-certified wood grows, so will the FSC, which is one of Mr. Cooklin’s goals.
One of South Cone’s “green” products, made in its Lima, Peru, factory, is the Gregory large console. It is made from sauco, a species of tropical hardwood from an FSC-certified supplier in Bolivia. The console, completely hand-planed and hand-finished, is part of a six-piece collection that includes large and small coffee tables, end tables, and a sideboard with two shelves. The company calls the pieces “rustic elegant with Spanish roots.”
Mr. Cooklin’s enthusiasm for the environment is catching on. This was the third market in which he invited industry leaders to a breakfast in his showroom to talk about sustainable furniture manufacturing. Jeffery Hiller of Four Hands, an importer and manufacturer of home furnishings based in Texas, was among them. Four Hands, which has been using reclaimed wood since its founding in 1997, does what it calls green-tagging.
“All our eco-chic products have a green tag, which indicates it is made of reclaimed teak, mango or recycled elm. We are trying to be sensitive to the issue,” he said.
“There is tons of teak scrap, which was used for building ships, and recycled elm from China.”
The company’s mango wood is grown on plantations.
“Mango is the No. 1 fruit in the world, and after 15 years the tree stops producing,” which is when it becomes available to furniture manufacturers, he said.
The misuse of natural resources has been a major concern among a certain segment of the population, but the motivation to change wasn’t always there.
“This is an incredible consumer hot button,” Mr. Hiller said. “Once you start hitting a tipping point and consumers get interested, then change follows.”
Good ideas in the furniture industry don’t get far without good design. Demonstrating style is not sacrificed when furnishings are eco-friendly is Red Egg. The company began by importing and selling Chinese antiques (the ultimate recyclables), but as the source dried up, owner Carol Gregg began making reproductions and original designs.
She introduced Moderne Maru, which includes love seats and chairs with circle-shaped cane, lacquered with a black or white finish or hand-rubbed amber tortoise.
“Cane is a 100 percent sustainable resource indigenous to the Philippines,” she said.
A grass like bamboo, cane is stronger and more flexible. Ms. Gregg also added Alpaca and wool rugs (vegetable tanned) to her inventory.
“We get them from a company in Bolivia that is helping women make a living,” she said, adding that the skins are taken from animals that have lived out their natural lives.
Looking at another way to preserve the planet and provide work to the willing is Dransfield and Ross. Its Chinese root furniture is created out of a byproduct of the logging industry. Finding new life above ground, the root is catching on in home decor.
“It is a centuries-old technique which ends up making one-of-a kind sculptural art pieces,” said co-owner Geoffrey Ross.
“We have taken that concept into the 21st century by creating contemporary shapes and designs paired with outrageous lacquered colors,” said company spokesman Keith St. Pierre.
Maria Yee is a California-based furniture maker with a factory in China. Ms. Yee claims to be one of the first to make furniture pieces from solid bamboo, a completely sustainable grass. In addition, the company takes pains to make use of everything, even scraps. It uses sawdust to fuel the boilers. All the furniture is made with wood joints, so no screws or fasteners are necessary.
One company with roots literally in the forest is Harden. More than a century ago, Charles Harden Sr. built a sawmill in Verona, N.Y. He and his brother Frank provided lumber for canals and railroads and began making kitchen chairs in the wintertime. By 1844, the Harden sawmill had become Harden Furniture Co.
Harden, which has its own forest, was the first major manufacturer certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Program. This week, company president and CEO Greg Harden was appointed to the New York State Environmental Board by Gov. George Pataki.
All of Harden’s furniture is made from wood grown and harvested on 20,000 acres of managed land in central New York state.
“Forestry is as much a part of this company as the furniture manufacturing,” said national sales manager Doug Cleveland.
One of the company’s most beautiful pieces is an Arts & Crafts-style desk/cabinet designed by Ron Cosser. It’s part of a limited-edition collection using quarter-sawn white oak and solid cherry from the company’s renewable forest.
It’s not just case goods manufacturers who have hopped on this very sustainable trend. Upholstery makers are doing their part as well. At market last month, C.R. Laine introduced an ottoman covered in recycled truck tarp.
“You know, the old tarp used to cover trucks mostly in South America, we take that and make them into these unique pieces,” said a spokesperson.
The 100 percent cotton canvas Brazilian truck tarp on the Nickleby round ottoman has been sterilized and softened but still boasts a “sun-baked” patina.
Lee, meanwhile, debuted what it is calling a revolutionary bio-based upholstery program. It is using soy-based foam for seat cushions from Hickory Springs, 100 percent cotton fabrics, and throw and back pillows filled with recycled fibers made from plastic bottles.
“This is not easy, it is not fast and it is not inexpensive to be responsible, but you have to get started,” insisted Mr. Cooklin.
He admitted in the short term it does not make a profit.
“But in the mid- to long term, it makes a lot of sense for the manufacturers, retailers, the Earth and ultimately, the human race.”
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