Sustainable in Seattle

Seattle is the 15th largest city in the US and one of the most remote. Located on a narrow strip of land between the freshwater of Lake Washington and the saltwater of the Pacific, it is separated from the rest of the country by two mountain ranges to the west and east. It has been nicknamed the Emerald City, not just because of its lush evergreen forests, but also because it has a reputation as one of the country’s greenest cities when it comes to sustainable living.

Recycling and upcycling are nothing new, but in this corner of northwest America, designers are taking the concept to its furthermost level, creating high-end furniture from objects abandoned in salvage yards. As a former trade hub, Seattle has plenty of these. Its numerous foundries and glassworks also provide rich pickings for the city’s eco-minded designers.

“People are very conscientious about reusing materials and working with reclaimed objects, but we are trying to take it forward, so that instead of leaving everything looking rustic we completely rework it to create a very high-end looking product,” says Tamara Codor of Codor Design. She creates ornate mirrors from found objects, with prices ranging from $1,900 to $11,500, and is determined to further what she calls an “eco ethic in the world of luxury goods.”

“We prefer to say, ‘here is a beautiful item and no tree was cut down for it.’ That [ethos] is very strong here; perhaps more than the rest of the US. It is a strong selling point – local materials, remade locally.”

Although Seattle may not have the winning score in terms of emissions and walkability (the ease of living without a car), Jill Simmons, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, says that when it comes to green living, “much of what we take for granted, other regions are just beginning to work on.”

So it makes sense that designers here are creating furniture with a clearly traceable provenance. Chad Robertson, of Chadhaus, makes pieces from reclaimed wood and steel.

He says that while these products are currently more expensive, it’s about buying something that will last a lifetime.

“People are more aware of the longevity of a product both from the perspective of durability and embodied environmental impact,” he says. “Although Seattle is a relatively new city in relation to the world it has a history of innovation. From the native American art of the Pacific Northwest to the Gates Foundation, our region has been quietly producing a lot of new ideas.

“I don’t know if it’s because it’s so rainy that people hole up and create or if it’s some other reason, but Seattle has a strong culture of creativity and industry.”

That creativity is immediately apparent in the city’s architecture. Styles range from the famous Space Needle to buildings by Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, as well as mock Georgian town houses and Japanese-inspired bungalows. But in the past few years there has been a more uniform approach, symbolised by the Bullitt Centre, said to be the greenest, most energy-efficient building in the world. This six-storey, 50,000 sq ft office space – which will generate its own electricity and use only harvested rainwater – officially opens on Earth Day (April 22).

Seattle loft by Codor Design

Capitol Hill, one of the older neighbourhoods on a long ridge overlooking downtown, was once known as Auto Row as it was home to car dealerships. During the 1930s the furniture companies arrived and it was renamed Furniture Row, later becoming Decorators’ Row. It is now a mix of classic and contemporary houses, small businesses and restaurants, which have moved into the former showrooms and restored the original features, including large windows and wooden floors.

Allan Farkas, of Eggleston Farkas Architects, says this is a classic approach: “We tend to design to take advantage of the variety of water, mountain and city views. Natural materials are used both inside and outside – the ornament is in the design and workmanship, not an applied finish.

“I believe this began in the region because of the timber industry and local woodworking skills, and the industrial skills required of workers at Boeing’s factories may have been a contributing factor as well.”

Andy Whitcomb, of Brackish Designs, makes furniture that fits into this aesthetic. His one-off pieces use locally reclaimed wood and industrial salvage. Prices vary from around $1,200 for a coffee table to $2,900 for a dining table.

“I fall in love with a piece of steel or a plank of wood and I look at it until an idea starts to emerge. That idea then becomes a piece of furniture or lighting that would never have existed before, and will never be repeated again. That’s how you turn trash into a high-end design item.”

This style can be quite strong and masculine, and the colours used in Seattle interiors tend to be muted browns, blues and greens, which complement the misty weather.

Jean Lee, of Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, says the bright colours of sunnier climates don’t work in the soft Seattle light. “Objects, people, buildings are rarely boldly coloured. When we do use colour it’s often in limited ways and just to provide contrast with the muted palette. Think of a red umbrella on a grey day or dark earthy woods with bright green moss on trees and rocks.”

Lee, whose wooden trays with red detail sell for $195, believes that one reason for Seattle’s design boom is the relatively low cost of living, which makes it easier to start up a business.

“Space to work is fairly abundant, the community is very supportive, and there are a lot of manufacturing sources here to produce products because of marine and aeronautical industries,” she says. “The pace is also a bit slower than a large city, so there’s a bit more time and room to concentrate on our work.”

She also believes that the close relationship between the city and its surroundings cannot help but inspire.

“Sustainability affects the way all sorts of businesses work, not just design-thinking. We try to elevate the materials and reuse them when appropriate. But we avoid making it too obvious since we like to stay away from the kitschy recycled look.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.