Growing up, my mom harnessed every bit of authority in how our houses would breathe, smell, sound, and, to a lesser extent, vibe. Even my bedroom had to match the vision of the study downstairs, right down to the tapestries on the walls. My mom kept a cursive sense of majesty in her design aesthetic, and I could only ever dream of one day holding my own keys to the kingdom.
So, here I am, holding the keys to the kingdom, and making a royal mess of things. While I’ll always care about aesthetics, for me, design is about more than just the look. I’m increasingly trying to make sustainable design choices – but after a few botched attempts at sustainable living and eco-friendly design, it was time to call in the experts.
It’s 2:00 pm on a Wednesday at Ponce City Market, and I’m window shopping (drinking daiquiris) with one of my closest friends, Virginia Bailey. A recent SCAD grad for Interior Design, Virginia currently serves as chair of the Green Building Committee for Cortland Properties. I trust her judgement when it comes to feng shui and color stories, and her sustainable living morales continue to challenge my habit of impulsively buying one-hit-wonders and “fun finds.” Virginia gives me three main bullets to consider: know your vendors, reduce waste, and use smarter materials.
“Less is always more,” she tells me. Reducing your home with an eye to quality over quantity is very much in fashion, with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on bookshelves across America. But this same lesson is just as often born out of necessity.
I spent my childhood on the banks of New Orleans, knee-deep in saltwater from Lake Pontchartrain and her many lagoons. Summers there are heavy with heat and invite a slew of hurricanes. Katrina, as we all remember, was brutal. With the surge of devastation that followed, I and many others on the Gulf developed a heightened respect for nature’s voracity. My Paw Paw had to repair a majority of his home, while losing his business even still. During his renovation, he made bold, swift decisions to clear the clutter and open the floor to belongings that “made sense.”
Virginia goes on to say that sustainable design is, in practice, about making decisions that consider the community. First up, we talk about working with responsible local merchants.
It’s why she brought me to Ponce City Market. PCM showcases predominantly Atlanta-based artisans and designers who take pride in their peach-ness and work closely with local purveyors. I’ve lived in ATL for about five years now, and as I dive deeper into the city’s independent arts community, I’ve learned that “locally made” is a lifestyle here. Something to wear proudly on your sleeve...or your baseball cap. The market does a swell job at featuring some renowned Georgia-grown brands, like Elk Head Clothing, Archer Paper Goods, Modern Mystic, Sugarboo & Co., almost everything in Citizen Supply, and even Candlefish, blown in from neighboring Charleston, SC. Wherever you are, Virginia notes, get to know your local makers and marketplaces. Paying closer attention to craftsmanship and the production side of interior design is the standard for places like PCM, where authenticity is paramount. It certainly pays off to know who you’re dealing with, rather than pulling from furniture and design tycoons.
Virginia’s next lesson? Buy used. “There are real perks of sourcing used furniture. You’re giving it a second life instead of having it go to landfill,” she tells me.
Virginia and I are hungry for a change of scenery, so we make our way across the street to Paris On Ponce, a fanciful dealer of all things young, old, faded and gold. The warehouse is a hot bed for reclaimed furniture and ornamentation, dressed up like a sideshow of forgotten treasures. It’s definitely a local favorite, famed for its easy access to the Eastside Beltline trail. I’ve snagged countless rarities here in years past, and while the designers of the loot are generally unknown, it’s a great place to rummage for recycled decor.
“I’m a minimalist, and I place heavy importance on the materials I use,” Virginia continues. My third lesson: use smarter materials. Refurbished wood, metal and plastic are the ‘good three’, but any materials that can be easily upcycled into something new lend themselves to better design ethics. Manufacturers are required to be translucent about the materials they use, but it’s always a good idea to check the facts yourself.
Our roads to sustainability are long and often clumsy. I’ve had my current apartment for two years now. Aesthetically, it makes absolutely no sense. My living room is riding on waves of sea glass and fishing net, whereas my bedroom is purposefully plain and ordinary. Though most of it hasn’t really come together in a pretty package, it does reflect reusable decor. I found my couch online from a local hand-me-down group, and a set of homemade broomsticks passed down from my great grandmother rest against the sunroom. The coffee table was built using refurbished wood. Virginia thumbs up my feeble attempts at a greener home, but her insight encourages me to keep going. All things considered, it’s really just a conscious effort to go left or right. In short, knowing your options and choosing the correct one.
It’s easy to overlook these practices when it comes to our home environment – often, we believe that the little things we keep around are there to stay, and because they remain in our homes, they won’t affect what’s outside. But considering what you are inviting back into the daily cycle can make-it-or-break-it with ethical interior design, and while it may not seem as crucial as composting or recycling, it can stamp the planet down the line as swiftly as anything else.
As I develop my own brand of home design, I find security in a space that holds very little, but puts out a lot. I find warmth in reclaimed pieces that have their own ghosts, and interiors that speak to the land that they stand on. Talking sustainability with an interior designer shines a light on the simplicity of making better design choices. I’m still training my eye for thoughtful design, but it’s comforting to know I’m doing something right. I’m learning to design with an eye for Mother Earth – but only Father Time will tell of my success.