How artists are embracing and incorporating sustainability into their craft and work. By Caroline Roux
The Tortello sofa was designed last year by the British design partnership of Jay Osgerby and Ed Barber for the upscale Italian company, B&B Italia. With its squashed elliptical form, its sculptural qualities are striking and very contemporary. (Rather cutely, it’s named after a filled pasta shape.) But what makes it really of the moment is its regard for sustainability.
The Tortello is made without any adhesives—harmful mainstays of the traditional furniture industry. Instead its component parts slot snugly together, and the entire sofa can be dismantled and reassembled for moving, storage, and future use. Finally, it seems, the furniture industry is finding innovative and responsible solutions, even at the highest level of production.
Luxury and sustainability haven’t always gone hand in hand, but there are significant and encouraging signs of change. There is the Butterfly Mark, for example, a certification applied by a company called Positive Luxury, which has been assessing and assisting top-level producers (Dior, Ruinart, and Tag Heuer are among them) for more than a decade. Founded by Karen Hanton—creator of restaurant booking service toptable.com (now OpenTable)—and Diana Verde Nieto, a pioneering sustainability expert, it offers frameworks for good practice. “We look at the aims of a company, and the budget that has been put in place to achieve them, and the training,” says Nieto. “It has to be a total commitment to change.”
Blue and yellow Tortello sofas by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby for B&B Italia.
The British design practice, David Collins Studio—which works internationally and has this year completed Evan Funke’s restaurant in the St Regis, Chicago, and is creating a spectacular lobby at the Las Vegas Fontainebleau—is also a member of Positive Luxury. “We’re on our way to getting our accreditation,” says managing director Iain Watson. “We’ve changed our materials library, which has already had a huge effect, encouraging clients and suppliers to look harder at sustainable options. But it needs to be part of every area of practice in the studio.”
Rose Uniacke, a London-based designer who is currently working on two major hospitality projects in New York, has long championed the reuse of historic pieces in her elegant interior design projects. “I just love furniture, it’s my absolute passion,” she says of her frequent use of historic pieces. “But it’s also important not to make something new if something old and wonderful already exists.”
In her recent renovation of a coach house—part of her London home—she has used exclusively reclaimed wood for its warm oak floors, and plenty of wooden pieces by Swedish master craftsman Axel Einar Hjorth. “It’s the countryside furniture he made in the 1930s, and it’s become so collectible,” she says.
But she has extended the level of responsibility she can bring to bigger design projects with a range of paint she has created with Graphenstone, which are mineral-based and offer the best possible finish. “They have no toxic chemicals, and as little environmental impact as possible,” explains Uniacke. “Our pure lime paint even absorbs and captures carbon dioxide.”
While she has long used entirely natural dyes and fibers in the textiles she creates, Uniacke has now taken things one step further with an antibacterial woven fabric made completely from recycled plastic bottles. “It requires almost no water in its production, and it has the look and feel of linen,” she says. “Our aim is to keep taking steps forward like this.”
It’s still too early to tell whether a work’s sustainable credentials make it more attractive to high-end consumers. “Collectors tend to go for the design first, but museums are increasingly interested in artists and designers who are working this way,” says Carole Hochman, director at Friedman Benda in New York. “There’s a keenness there to develop collections around sustainability and new materials.” She cites two of the gallery’s artists—Fernando Laposse and Erez Nevi Pana.
Laposse is known for his work with agave fibers that look like exotic horsehair and chic marquetry pieces made in a corn starch. Pana uses waste salt from the Dead Sea to create extraordinary sculptural works. Anyone intrigued by these amazing material investigations might like to also consider the work of 33-year-old Basse Stittgen, who has developed a way to make a material from cows’ blood, which is a mass waste product from the slaughterhouse industry. Or Ori Orisun Merhav, who is reviving the making of “lac”—a polymer derived from a natural product made by insects. Neither have been commercialized, but it is definitely a space to keep an eye on.
Simon Stewart, director of London gallery Charles Burnand, however, recently sold a pair of chairs by the Puerto Rican designer Reynold Rodriguez to a prolific British collector. “The businesses she runs are very much about the natural and the organic, and I think Rodriguez’s work chimed with her values,” says Stewart.
Rodriguez is based in San Juan, which is still showing the devastation caused by 2017’s Hurricane Maria. “It was hard to miss the surplus of wood piling up in the city,” says Rodriguez, who set up as an independent maker four years ago. “In the 1920s, the US forest service replanted the island to create a lumber industry,” he explains. “They planted mostly teak and mahogany, and it thrived. Now we never have to cut down a tree. They have been brought down by nature, and it’s great to find a use for this beautiful material.” Rodriguez is currently crafting a huge sofa—“like three or four overscale river pebbles assembled together”—from a single piece of mahogany. “I think people do respond to signs of endeavor, and the presence of the natural world.”
Laposse’s work also encapsulates deep narratives. A 40m-long narrative textile he has created for the 2023 Triennale at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia tells the story of a community of women who have fought against the monoculture of avocado production in his native Mexico and the cartels who control it. The same women have worked with Laposse to make the tapestry, which is woven from sisal and is dyed with avocado. “Fernando makes a deep emotional connection first. He needs to understand every part of a community, and a material. With the agave, for example, he is there for every planting season and every harvest,” says Renata del Riego, his artist manager at Friedman Benda.
Paula Hayes, a landscape artist and designer based in upstate New York, who has become known for her stylish plant-filled terrariums, is now busy finding the solution to creating less-water-dependent gardens. “Even if it’s the Hamptons, or New Mexico, people come to me as an artist or consultant based on my existing projects. Increasingly I have clients who are really focused on maintaining existing trees, even though they could afford to start with a tabula rasa,” she says. “But then I’m known for work that is very relaxed and natural. I don’t think I’m likely to attract the sort who want to break water laws.”