Lori Dennis’ desire to be part of the solution to waste and pollution in the interior design and construction fields. This led her to write Green Interior Design which came out last month. Along with beautiful images of her work, it is a manual of resources for anyone wishing to create green interiors.
Lori’s first “ah-ha” design moment came at the young age of four when she was living with her single, struggling student mother far away from their support system in New York. Not having the time or the money to put anything other than a cot in Lori’s room, it resembled a jail cell. When she put her new Popeye sheets on the cot, a birthday gift from her aunt, Lori noticed that her room was instantly transformed into something lively and fun. That was the moment that she began to pay attention to her environment. Even as a young girl she could see the difference that design could make in a space and how joyful her room became just from doing one small thing. From there she always paid attention to architecture and buildings.
While living in many places in the U.S. like Amish Country and New York, Lori had the opportunity to see all kinds of buildings. While living in Northern and Southern California she saw a lot of Spanish style architecture and was affected by the landscape and ocean. In high school Lori dated boys with cars so they could take her to open houses where they would pretend that their parents were somewhere else in the country and were scoping out the houses for them. Lori’s grandmother was raised during the Depression in New York City and her mom, being a single parent and wanting to honor their American Indian heritage was very cognizant about recycling, saving and not wasting. “I specifically remember at 7 to 10 years old watching the Archie Bunker show where they would talk about the energy crisis and the lights and so all of this came in to my scope of awareness at a very young age.”
Green design all came together and gelled in 1998 when in design school Lori met Jeffrey Mora, a sustainable chef for the Lakers and a member of NRDC. He was friends with a lot of people who were very committed to the green movement long before it really got legs: Ted Danson was involved with Oceana, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Leslie Hoffman. Lori was thrilled that she could marry her love of design and architecture with this way of being that she had always been and form something called a green design business which actually made editors pay attention to her at a time when she was a new designer and it was hard to get people to pay attention to you. It was something interesting and unique, it all worked out really well for her and here we are now a decade later when so many people know about it, it’s become a mainstream way of being.
“Something interesting happened at the park the other day, I watch these shows with my child where they talk about recycling and not wasting water, and this little 3 year old girl told her daddy ‘We have to pick up the trash because if you leave it on the ground it’s bad for the environment.’ I thought that this is really becoming a success.”
LH: Are people coming to you because they know you as a green designer or they come to you because they like your aesthetics and you then try to teach them about green design? I think the younger people are much more aware and interested than many of my older clients who don’t necessarily want to spend the extra money when they are already spending a lot.
LD: I’m surprised that almost everywhere I go I meet people are dedicated to it. In Southern California a lot of people are in tune with the environment, they hike, surf and spend a lot of time outdoors and so for me it was easy and natural. The biggest leap to get over was the price difference. But now things are pretty on par, where people can save money with rebates and many mechanical systems are now the same as conventional systems. I have found people to be very receptive. Recently we’ve been on a marketing campaign for my book “Green Interior Design” and I’ve personally contacted over 1,000 mainstream blog writers all over the country, Australia, England, Ireland and Canada with pretty expensive things on their blogs and they are all so happy to be engaged in it. Is every single person doing everything they can? No, but I’ve seen the wave starting to get traction.
LH: Are you always able to incorporate the sustainable and healthy aspects to all of your projects? For aesthetic or practical reasons do you sometimes have to skirt around certain parts of this?
LD: We all know that there is nothing that is 100% sustainable and some people are going to be more interested in doing something specifically green for them versus something attractive, quick and as inexpensive as possible. In every design I am able to incorporate green things. It can be as simple as paint and it can move on deeper once their awareness grows. Another thing is that I have taken the other approach and not been touting so much about the environment, which I think we have all been beaten with a stick about how important it is for the environment and global warming, but the health aspects. Almost everyone has somebody that they know who has suffered from some type of cancer, respiratory problems or asthma and when you can explain to people that the type of products that they put into their homes can greatly enhance their quality of life in terms of their health.
Lori leads tours of showrooms throughout the nation showing us some of the most luxurious, expensive and beautiful products that are green. “In the past one had to be very creative and have a more modern, loft like aesthetic for this to work, but now no how, no way. You’ve got something like Edward Ferrell/ Lewis Mittman, which has some of the most beautiful furniture in the world and it’s finely crafted. There is the Maya Romanoff line of wall coverings that are spectacular, Pollack fabrics which are world class and the finest available, Boyd Lighting makes an LED line of lights is gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous lighting. Manufacturers are paying attention. Is the whole showroom green? No. Maybe it’s 15% of a showroom but you can work your way around it.”
Although Lori custom makes most of her upholstered goods, for more moderately priced pieces she says that Crate and Barrel has an eco-friendly line that is very comfortable. The price points are fair and she finds the products are superior with environmental materials. A little higher on prices, she finds
Cisco Brothers, known for its green building practices, has furniture that is extremely comfortable.
Lori’s inspiration for writing “Green Interior Design” came about from being asked at her many speaking engagements at universities and design events “ Isn’t there a book where we can find all of this information?” There wasn’t. She had a file with the label “Book” on it, so after being asked by a publisher if she would write a book, Lori started writing. She is now getting so much feedback that this is a book that can actually be used.
What I found fascinating is that Lori covered all aspects of interior design products and solutions. She names names and tells you what you can use and where to purchase it. Lori shares my philosophy that buying the best quality you can afford is the greenest thing you can do. We talked of my concern that in this economy and with prices skyrocketing I am still hesitant to purchase from catalogues because I can’t guarantee the quality of the product. Lori mentioned that with places like Crate & Barrel who offer 10 year warranties, she is more open to buying from them as well as buying antiques and vintage.
LH: We’ve been hearing a lot about people who are now calling their products green when in fact there may be only one aspect. To the designer or end user are there any questions that we can ask because so many of the salespeople really don’t know how a product is made?
LD: That’s a great question because even the vendors or the owners of the companies don’t always know. They might say it’s green because it has organic cotton but they don’t always know that the cushions are made out of petroleum and the glues have formaldehyde in it and so there is nothing green or healthy about it at all. It’s off gassing like crazy and it smells bad. There is definitely an education and learning curve needed for someone going out to purchase, so they know the questions to ask if the sales person really doesn’t know and there is no cut sheet giving all the necessary information.
ASID has a sustainable section with possible questions to ask a vendor and my own book has a checklist. If a manufacturer makes any attempt at being green, such as recycling their paper and bottles, using a water filter, that’s good. As long as you are trying to be part of the solution, even if it’s 2%, they are going in the right direction.
LH: I had never thought of myself as a “green” designer but I usually always use wood veneers and natural materials. And my own mantra is ”If it’s not beautiful, comfortable and well made it’s not acceptable”.
I have a lot of clients who have small children and or pets where I find myself using faux suedes or solution dyed acrylics (outdoor fabrics) because they clean easily. What do you think about using these types of materials?
LD: I use these materials all the time. It’s a give and take. The durability is great even if the components aren’t. There is green manufacturing along with the use of recycled content now with many of these synthetic and outdoor fabrics so you are getting a happy marriage of environmental and health aspects along with the durability. They last forever and are kid-proof, dog-proof, newspaper-proof and red wine proof.
LH: Europe seems to be much further along in the making of eco conscious textiles.
LD: Europe has had to learn to adapt and not pollute because their cities are so close together. We have been learning a lot from them, but when I was in France this summer I noticed piles of plastic water bottles in their trash because they don’t have a system for recycling these bottles. Coming from a culture where we have a whole sub-culture of people going thru our re-cycled trash cans because these are worth money, it made my skin crawl. So where they have been ahead of us in the organic and environmental game, I have to say that we might be leaping ahead of them in terms of our awareness and legislation that puts a price tag on soluble resources so that they are recycled instead of being thrown in the trash.
Due to people asking Lori where they could buy some of the pieces shown in photos of past projects, she now has a section on her website where one can purchase some of the same pieces. Most of the fabric selections are light neutrals, which led us into a long discussion about the pros and cons of using white or off white textiles, especially when one has children or sofa loving pets. We agreed that the only practical solution was using leather, ultra-suede, sensuede or similar products that can be wiped down with a damp cloth. Lori also mentioned diluting a couple of drops of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap with water and using a good scrub brush, which she claims will clean almost anything including more precious linens, including her daughters peanut butter and jelly droppings. I’m off to buy some tomorrow to try it out.
Along with her contractor husband, Lori re-uses existing wood whenever possible in a remodeling project, taking the wood from one part of a demolished space to be used in framing a new addition. She calls upon companies that will segregate the trash for you, which is required for a LEED project, and they will help you recycle. When ripping out perfectly good cabinets and toilets, she says to donate them to places like Habitat for Humanity or put them out on the street for others to pick them up. You can get money for recycling metals. Toilets, which are made out of porcelain, when crushed, break down and biodegrade. Lori suggests that you check out what is available and legal in your particular region.
Looking into the near future, Lori sees the market expanding when Walmart sells organic cotton Tee shirts for $3. School lunches are changing as obesity is finally being addressed at such a high level. She sees the pitch changing from how much healthy eating costs to how much it costs for illness. She also sees a turn away from corporate greed toward humanity when purchasing. “If someone can purchase a cup of coffee from Starbucks for the same price where one is fair trade and the other one abuses or takes advantage of people, I see them purchasing with their conscience. There are 3 components to the green movement: the environmental and health impact and the human toll.”
Lori is most excited about her new show on HGTV coming out in about five months and getting paid for all the hard work and research that she has done.” She says that this show differs from the HGTV model in that “it’s like a real housewives format for interior design showing us with our families, our fashionable side and the real realities of working as a designer with our own clients. I’m so excited about having such a large platform to get my message out. Regarding new products I’m really excited about a memory foam where they are using Temper Pedic mattress technology for sofas, where I can get a streamlined look and still have the comfort of down as well as the new and improved look of Caroma Toilets, where you wash your hands and the waste goes into the tank.”