The green house effect
Amanda Sawyer on how to navigate the tricky waters of sustainable design
Sustainability is wrecking my head. You can't argue with the principles behind it - we all need to be more conscious about what we buy for our homes - but there are so many things to consider.
Some of it is as easy as not buying plastic straws, but other decisions are more challenging. Here's a dilemma. I've started feeling vaguely guilty every time I use cling film, but the roll is relatively new. Since I have it, I may as well use it until it's finished. Right? Or should I just bin the unused roll? It's enough to make you want to hide under the non-biodegradable carpet.
Buying furniture is even more confusing. Is it ethically made? How far has it travelled? Are the materials sustainably sourced? And how does it rate on pollutants? Whatever you do, there will always be some worthier-than-thou person to tell you how you're getting it wrong. Some of their arguments lack logic (I'm absolutely sick of being told not to buy avocados by people who are perfectly happy to eat a banana).
Thank goodness for Amanda Sawyer, interior designer and curator of the online shop, Irish Girl in Brooklyn (IGB). She's one of the speakers on the Trend Talks stage at House 2019 (Ireland's biggest home and interior design show, running the weekend starting May 24), where she'll be telling us how to navigate the tricky waters of sustainable design. Sawyer has a step-by-step approach to sustainability and a knack for making it all seem doable.
"There's almost a trend for being environmentally conscious, and people jump on that bandwagon, but it's more than a trend," she says. "It's a reawakening of how we look at things. We have the idea that we can't save the world, but we can save the world if we make slightly better decisions."
After the best part of 20 years in New York, Sawyer has returned to live in Limerick, where IGB has a studio. Although she has some new pieces, her special interest is in vintage and antiques.
"There is so much furniture out there in the world already and it can be changed or modified to the way that you want to live," she says. "Sustainability doesn't have to be puritanical or boring and each piece has something special about it. They are old, but they don't read that way. I want them to read as fresh and contemporary."
Disposability, she points out, is a relatively new thing. "They say that sustainability is a trend, but I don't think that's correct," she says. "Until very recently, we all lived in a sustainable way. It's disposability that's the trend. We just lost the run of ourselves."
In many ways, being sustainable means going back to the habits of previous generations, and that includes buying locally. "I really have a problem with not knowing where something came from," she says. "If you buy something that's locally made, you know that your money is going to a good place."
Last year at House, Sawyer was impressed by the standard of hand-crafted kitchens by Irish design firms and this year's exhibitors include Michael Farrell Kitchens from Wexford, Alwood Kitchens from Armagh, and Pattersons, with showrooms in Derry, Dun Laoghaire and Lifford, Co Donegal. "Irish people often think that they can't get the design that they want in their own country," she says. "I don't think that's true."
One of the stands that she's looking forward to exploring at House is Copper Fish Lighting. Founded in 2016 by Eoin Shanley, Copper Fish makes handcrafted lighting from salvaged wood and copper piping, the old materials balanced by extraordinary retro filament bulbs. Each of the collections takes its name from the source of its materials. The Kingstown Collection is made of railway sleepers, salvaged from the old Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) line; the Sunday Collection comes from thick whitewashed room beams rescued from an old chapel; and the Dock Collection is made from the 300-year-old timbers of Belfast Dock. Prices start at €150 for a table lamp and €350 for a floor lamp.
"It's such a simple concept - a piece of wood and copper piping," says Sawyer. "I met Eoin at House last year and I saw the most amazing light bulb on his stand. It must have been 20cm in diameter. As I was buying it, he told me that he had designed it, but he wasn't sure if anyone would want it. He's always pushing himself to another place in terms of design, but he's also being practical about making a living."
Sawyer (left) is also an advocate of buying things that will last. Her sofa, for example, came from Catherine Memmi in Paris. That's a high-end artisan brand and it was an expensive purchase, but it's stood the test of time. "A sofa is like a tank," she says. "It's a workhorse."
Part of the longevity is in the materials and craftsmanship, but the design is also timeless because of its simple shape. "Keep the basics basic!" she recommends. She has no time for furniture that has been made by poorly paid workers in unhealthy conditions, transported across the world and then sold cheaply. "That piece of furniture hasn't done any good to anybody on the planet."
Thrift and sustainability go hand in hand, and Sawyer's sofa has recently been recovered in salvaged linen.
"I had a set of curtains in storage for 20 years. They came from a loft in Soho. When I came back to Ireland, I unpacked them and the fabric was good as new. I'm crazy about linen, so I've used the curtains to recover the sofa and had the rest made into Roman blinds."
If you like linen, IGB has Matteo Vintage linen duvet covers (€295), sheets (from €165), and pillowcases (€40). Not the cheapest, but they'll last you.
Buying once and buying well is one of the key principles of sustainable interiors. Mid-century editions are a safe bet because they have already stood the test of time, but the top of my wish list is actually a new design. It's called the Lounge Chair JH97 and it's designed for Fritz Hansen by Jaime Hayon. Apparently, it's inspired by the pelican, with "long broad wings, a gently curved body, and a distinctive bill". That sounds like a flight of fancy!
The chair itself is gloriously simple and nothing like a pelican. It looks like it's been around forever, but it won't be available until September and will cost around €1,695. Time to start saving. Throwaway culture is for the scrap heap.
See irishgirlinbrooklyn.com, copperfish.ie, pattersonskitchens.ie, alwoodkitchens.com, fritzhansen.com; the Irish stockist for Fritz Hansen is lostweekend.ie.