Under the Table: Eco-Friendly Furniture That's Beautiful and Functional

By Eichenseher, Tasha | E Magazine, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Under the Table: Eco-Friendly Furniture That's Beautiful and Functional


Eichenseher, Tasha, E Magazine


If you were to dissect a typical living-room couch, you'd likely find an environmental disaster: a frame made of unsustainably harvested wood treated with formaldehyde and varnishes that can pollute indoor air; unrecyclable foam cushions dosed with flame-retardant chemicals that accumulate in fish when released into the environment; and upholstery colored with chlorine-based dyes and tacked on with toxic glues.

In fact, toxic materials are used throughout the traditional furniture-making process. The paints, varnishes and waxes commonly employed can release the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known to decrease indoor air quality. One of the most common VOCs is formaldehyde, which is used in glues for particleboard. It is also added to paints as a preservative and to upholstery to give it a permanent-press quality. Formaldehyde emissions can cause eye and throat irritation, allergic reactions, and possibly cancer, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"Traditional furniture can off-gas for years," says Tom Heerman, co-founder of Baltix Furniture, a four-year-old office furniture manufacturer in Minnesota. Heerman says his company only uses finishes that don't contain formaldehyde. Instead, Baltix dries products with an ultraviolet process that prevents off-gassing.

San Rafael, California-based Tamalpais NatureWorks also uses toxic-free finishes on its clean-lined furniture. The company uses paints, stains and waxes from BioShield, which makes its products out of citrus peel extracts, essential oils, tree resins, bee waxes and natural pigments. Many natural products experts also recommend that people use water-based finishes, and apply paints as powder coatings to minimize VOCs.

Furniture and bedding is a $66 billion industry in the U.S., and the vast majority of those products are still constructed in the conventional way--from declining natural resources, However, a handful of furniture makers are blazing a more sustainable path. "We're at the boutique stage now with 'green' furniture, with the exception of Ikea," says Keith Winn of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). While furniture that doesn't contain harmful chemicals or is made from environmentally friendly resources is readily available online, most conventional retailers don't offer it in their show rooms.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Wood is still the primary component of most furniture. In the face of devastation caused by widespread deforestation, some furniture makers are turning to alternative sources of lumber. "While sustainably harvested wood has been available for some years, recycled, reclaimed and urban wood products are just beginning to enter the market," explains William Callahan, founder of Tamalpais NatureWorks. Reclaimed, recycled and salvaged are terms that describe wood collected from such sources as old buildings, boats and fallen trees, as well as from lakes and streams. Urban wood usually refers to logs milled from city trees that have fallen because of storms and age. Employee-owned Tamalpais makes some of its distinctive furniture from wood salvaged from an 1888 timber mill.

Portland, Oregon-based Resource Revival started making coffee and end tables from the salvaged fir beams of old houses in 2003. "I see what we do as more like resourceful subsistence than an extension of the industrial economy, except that we scavenge from the latter rather than from the natural environment," says founder Graham Bergh. Resource Revival also uses recycled bike components in a range of unique products, including eye-catching tables (see photo at left).

The keystone component of Tamalpais furniture is actually recycled steel and brass fasteners. The parts can be ordered separately so you can build your own piece, ensuring easy disassembly down the road, and allowing you to use local wood, which reduces shipping and transportation costs. …

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