Growing Concern for the Earth Takes Root in '90s Decorating


April 26, 1992|By Elizabeth Large

Practically every shelter magazine you pick up these days has a story on someone's chic rustic home.

The New York Times says in a home design column that "designers and manufacturers are becoming downright earthy."

The catalogs that arrive on your doorstep are full of dried topiaries, wooden bunnies, twig accessories and ivy on everything from birdhouses to soap dispensers.

Metropolitan Home runs a feature called "Go Green Gracefully," highlighting products for the home that are ecologically sound -- from paints that contain no formaldehyde or toxic metals to linens of "green" cotton processed without bleach or conditioning agents. Syndicated design columnist Rose Bennett Gilbert says -- as if it goes without saying -- "What with all of us getting back to nature in the '90s . . . "

Is it media hype? Or is eco-decorating a hot new trend, competing with the new classicism for the look of the decade?

Not in Baltimore, says Keith Gasser of Benesch Gasser Design )) Inc.

"Frankly, I think that's stretching it a little," says Papier's Joyce Griffith.

"Baltimore's not really into trends," says Susie Swann of Swann-Hall Associates Ltd.

"My business is traditional," says Kim Coale of Kim Coale Interiors.

But are back-to-nature themes and conservative interior design really incompatible? Once local designers got to thinking about it, many of them traced motifs in their own decorating that could be considered "going green."

Ms. Coale says she's into recycling in her interior design business. "I'm definitely into recycling a client's furniture, like an old sofa, because of its charm, replacing the springs or whatever. I like that. I like having old pieces and making them over."

Ms. Griffith has also noticed an interest in redoing old sofas or chairs and repainting furniture as part of redecorating a home, even when the client has money to burn. And while they were on the subject of recycling, several designers mentioned that people having kitchens done nowadays insist on the storage areas and built-in bins that make it easier to recycle.

As for "bringing the outdoors inside," just about everyone agrees it's not a new idea, but it's more in vogue than ever. Partly that's because there are so many energy-conserving options available now, such as low-E storm windows that prevent heat loss in the winter. New houses can be built using lots of glass, and traditional sun rooms can be converted into comfortable places for year-round living.

Designer Frances Lamb has a small sun room that's become a favorite place for her and her husband. It looks out onto a terrace that has bird and squirrel feeders. The room is filled with plants and decorated with wrought-iron garden furniture; even in winter the Lambs feel in touch with the outdoors.

Plants are more popular in homes than ever, in sun rooms and elsewhere. They're doubly ecologically correct. Besides bringing the outdoors in, plants -- studies suggest -- help combat indoor pollutants. According to the Foliage for Clean Air Council, a national clearinghouse for information on the subject, you should have one large or several small plants for every 100 square feet in your house. But most people still want them primarily to create an environment that's lush and colorful.

Local designers are seeing wrought-iron furniture -- often with plant designs -- being used more than ever as indoor furniture. The same goes for Adirondack chairs. There's also been a resurgence of interest in twig furniture. (If you're really into back-to-nature, you can make your own, with directions from a new book, "Making Twig Furniture & Household Things," by Abby Ruoff.)

Another way designers blur the distinction between indoors and out is the use of trompe l'oeil. A client of Papier's had a miniature fig vine with tiny beetles and grasshoppers painted on her living room wall. The room is all white otherwise and opens onto a wooded area; the effect, says Joyce Griffith, is wonderful.

Designer Susie Swann mentions a client who had flowers from her garden and a rabbit painted on her bathtub tiles. Kathryn Rienhoff of Kathryn Rienhoff Interiors in Ruxton has an artistic daughter whose trompe l'oeil "garden" brings the outdoors into her Eastern Shore guest cottage.

Ms. Rienhoff sometimes uses the English country chintzes favored by many of her clients to reflect actual flowers outside their living room windows. A zinnia pattern in a room she designed, for instance, looks good all year-round. But for a few weeks, she says, the duplication is spectacular.

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