Eco-style does not have to be an oxymoron. At hotels like Fiji's Turtle Island, Belize's Blancaneaux Lodge, and the recently opened El Monte Sagrado in New Mexico, eco-tourism's motto of "sustainability"—the movement toward ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just development—means $1,500 a night suites, mini-bars stocked with complimentary champagne, and full-service spas. But mention sustainable furniture and all that comes to mind is something bland, hemp-ish, and decidedly unfashionable. Environmental expert Jesse Johnson and decorator Anthony Cochran are set to change all that with Q Collection, a furniture line dedicated to "fine design in harmony with our world."
"I know the decorator's point of view," says Cochran, who has worked with designers John Saladino and Victoria Hagan. "As sustainable as we make it, first and foremost it has to look good. Our goal was always twofold: to produce a small range that had great lines, good colors, beautiful finishes and that was as sustainable as we could make it." Every exposed piece of ash, mahogany, and maple, whether it's painted or stained with zero- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes exclusive to Q Collection, is hand-rubbed to a silky-smooth finish. Every piece, from the regal Abigail settee to the handsome David dining table to the Morocco-inspired Cale & Brady stool, follows a curve that lends it both sensuality and elegance.
Inspiration came in the form of a classic New York environmentalist's dilemma. Johnson was renovating his Manhattan apartment and wanted it to be as sustainable as he could possibly make it. He searched for building materials that were free of toxic chemicals and carcinogens and contributed the least to poor indoor air quality. But in spite of his background in the subject and knowledge of the benefits and detriments of particular materials, he had trouble coming up with anything other than a handful of acceptable sources. "Take plywood, for instance. It's the basis for almost every kitchen cabinet out there and uses formaldehyde-based glue to fuse together the layers of wood veneer. That glue is one of the leading causes of poor indoor air quality," says Johnson. When it came to decor, the pickings were even slimmer. Cochran, hired to help with the interiors, would number the choices at less than zero. "Honestly, decorators don't even look for sustainable furnishings because they just assume they have no options, which is largely true. That's no indictment of decorators, just of the market."
Their interest piqued by working on Johnson's apartment, the pair dug deeper and found that what was missing was not only residential furnishings but, in Johnson's words, "a whole product where nothing was compromised." They dreamed up a chair made of certified wood, assembled with formaldehyde-free glue, sealed with a polyurethane-free finish, and upholstered in natural fabrics with nontoxic dyes. After a year's research and planning, they discovered how challenging it was to be uncompromising.
They realized they would have to deconstruct to reconstruct. Cochran had designed plenty of furniture "all of top- quality material," he says, "but I had little awareness of its potentially toxic nature." Cochran returned to his upholsterer with a new curiosity and had him "walk me through a chair, from the glide on the foot to the welt on the arm." Adds Johnson, "We needed to learn what we should be looking for." Armed with a list of components, the partners searched for the least toxic material for each, from organic muslin to natural latex rubber foam to Forest Stewardship Council-certified woods. It was an eye-opener. "The form-aldehyde in wood glue is just one of the VOCs that we needed to substitute," says Johnson. "To get a sense of the noxious power of these compounds," adds Cochran, "go to the shoe aisle of a big box store and inhale. You're breathing in exactly what we're trying to eliminate."
Fabrics and finishes presented the biggest hurdles. "We quickly realized that if we were going to do furniture we had to develop our own fabrics," says Coch-ran. "We couldn't very well make a healthy sofa and cover it with polyester. Besides, every 'natural' fabric we saw looked bland; the palette ranged from beige to sage." The diligent detectives tracked down a European textile mill that had taken on the challenge of screening for toxicity and had reduced the number of chemicals in dyes from 1,600 to 16. "The water used by this factory is cleaner when it comes out of the factory than when it goes in," says Johnson.
Not only do the rich palette and supple Q fabrics and leathers defy designers' and buyers' expectations of sustainable furnishings, the rest of the collection does as well. Yes, there is a natural hemp in the fabric line but it is easily trumped by a satin wool that comes in solids, stripes, and patterns—in 11 saturated colors from paprika to aubergine using zero-impact dyes. Cochran felt the need to counter not only the neutral tones that characterize most "natural" furnishings but also the strict straight lines of so much contemporary furniture. Neither rigidly modern nor traditional, Q Collection's line would be absolutely healthy but not so clean in form as to be hard and uninviting. "I wanted to introduce some softness," says Cochran, "so that the furniture would look as comfortable as it actually is."
Seventeen pieces make up the debut collection; nine are upholstered and eight are case goods. "There were people doing either one or the other; we felt we needed to address both in order to offer a wholly healthy environment," says Johnson. In choosing the pieces to produce, the partners kept in mind that a client with particular environmental sensitivities might need to outfit an entire apartment in sustainable furnishings. So along with low-slung sofas and leather club chairs there are a coffee table, a dining table, two side chairs, a desk, a bookcase, two stools, a bedside table, and a headboard.
Johnson and Cochran will even advise on how to care for this furniture that they are building to last, both visually and structurally, for generations. Which is, of course, a kind of sustainability even the nonenvironmentally aware can appreciate.
From $270 for a decorative pillow to $27,000 for the Abigail settee in Q Collection leather. At 915 Broadway, New York; 212-529-1400; www.qcollection.com.