Photo: JOHN LAWRENCE
‘The problem with much modern furniture design is that it is not built to last,” says Dr Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design (£24.99; Earthscan), a book that asks people to reassess their relationship with the items they fill their homes with.
Dr Chapman argues that one of the reasons for the environmental “mess” we are in is “the way we design, manufacture and consume objects… we are hopelessly seduced by the glow of all things modern, be it a flatter screen or a smarter plastic”.
Furniture never used to be “throwaway”, replaced every few years either because it was too shabby or had ceased to be fashionable. Dr Chapman says that in the Thirties economists came up with “planned obsolescence”, meaning that if people had to replace items more frequently, they would buy more and thus stimulate economic recovery. The past few years of recession and stagnant growth have underlined the flaws in this theory: building an economy on consumer spending does not necessarily result in sustainable growth.
Maybe it’s time to make our purchasing decisions on how durable and Earth- friendly an item is.
One idea being pioneered by the New Forest Trust is to give every tree felled for furniture its own GPS reference so people can pinpoint its provenance and even visit the stump.
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“It’s about getting people to think differently about their new bed or coffee table,” says trustee Donald Thompson. “Rather than just seeing it as a commodity, to see it as wood that was once a tree growing in a forest, that what you have is unique.” Furniture makers using New Forest timber now have access to this service (www.newforesttrust.org.uk).
So what is eco furniture? There isn’t an official definition but some of the elements eco-friendly design must include are:
The reuse or sustainable use of materials: using reclaimed wood or wood from certified forests; using renewable materials such as flax, jute, hemp and cotton instead of plastics; reusing items that are otherwise thrown away.
The use of local materials: the fewer miles a piece of furniture and its components have to travel the better.
Emissions during manufacture: much mass-manufacture of furniture results in toxic pollution from dyes, paints, glues and chemical treatments. Techniques such as traditional dovetailing in carpentry – rather than using glue – minimise emissions.
Max McMurdo has a knack for seeing beautiful potential in builders’ and retailers’ salvage. He has made coffee tables out of washing-machine drums and chairs out of shopping trolleys. His latest creation is a chaise longue made from a Victorian cast-iron ball-and-claw bathtub.
“Because they are so heavy, cast-iron bath tubs are often sledgehammered in situ and removed from Victorian properties in pieces. It’s such a waste of a classic design,” says McMurdo. “The ball-and-claw feet are a lovely feature and it’s a shame so many are destroyed. I’ve turned them into sofas before but I was experimenting recently, taking more off the back to create a chaise.”
McMurdo is acquiring a name for himself among the house-clearance brigade. “I get calls from plumbers and scrap merchants offering me baths. Some people just turn up at my workshop with them.” His designs can be seen on www.reestore.com.
ECO-FRIENDLY CAN ALSO BE NEW
Traditional bed makers Harrison Spinks (www.harrisonspinksfarm.co.uk) have been manufacturing mattresses and divans in Yorkshire since 1840, but recently decided to try to source materials more locally. “We were importing our mattress wool from Australia and our wood and other mattress fillings were either imported or partly synthetic,” says Simon Spinks. “We wanted our beds to be natural and our raw materials closer.”
The firm purchased a 300-acre farm near their Leeds factory, where a thousand Texel/Leicester and Swaledale sheep graze before supplying their fleeces for bedding. “We’ve reduced a 12,000-mile trip to 15,” says Spinks. “What’s more, Yorkshire wool is better than Australian for beds, it’s more springy.”
The firm has now bought a nearby wood which from next year will supply the pine and spruce for the bed bases.
Working in futuristic fabrics after graduating from the Royal College of Art made Inghua Ting (www.tinglondon.com) think about the impact of design on the environment.
“I witnessed factories in Japan overproducing tons of material just because it was the wrong shade or specification,” she says. “There is so much waste that just ends up in landfill.” Ting makes fabulous hammocks, cushions and stools out of car seat belts that have not passed vehicle safety or colour tests. She also makes parquet flooring and furniture from second-hand leather belts sourced from flea markets and charity shops.