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Interiors Luxury & Sustainability: Green Without Compromise

Once upon a time there was a world where Luxury and Sustainability were considered separate from one another, especially in interiors. This in fact, was the case on Earth in the year 2013 and articles were written around this phenomenon. They read like this… (published in Sustain magazine Feb/March 2013 edition)

The relationship between sustainability and luxury is one that has not sat comfortably with experts in these respective fields and their prospective clients have tried to understand how these can coexist. One general assumption is that if something is coined as ‘sustainable’, it cannot also be of ‘higher value’ and is not perceived as stylish in classical design terms.

Briefly considering what we actually mean these days by the term ‘luxury’, what it represents and how it’s likely to evolve, I asked people around me what their thoughts on the meaning are and there is much commonality: luxury means to have money, not worry about not having money, freedom across the board, something is special, expense, exclusivity, makes me feel stronger, taller, more all around confident, I’m worth it, what I deserve, I feel looked after, it feels right, I feel unrestricted. You get the drift… Dear Reader, what do you think luxury means?

Luxury was historically associated and represented by high achievements, personal desirability due to achievements but has by some twist, become publicly a target to be achieved in itself rather than be an outcome of achievement. So the focus has become to achieve luxury for its own sake and when this behaviour is applied to a larger population, as is currently, it generates two outcomes: it creates rushed products that are not thought through, not ‘well made’, but has shared a design consciousness to a wider group of people than previously possible. Therefore, environmental unsustainable consumption is one of the negative impacts, temporary economic affluence a part benefit and a move towards a wider social equality another.

Luxury can be seen as a constantly moving target of performance. That can be the performance level of a product, level of service or interior environment, or a combination of both product and service. The levels and type of performance a luxury product would have achieved 20 years ago are not the same today. An occupant is looking for a constantly evolving luxury life(style) and an interior space that reflects, enables and ensures that specific lifestyle. Part of the nature of luxury itself is the ability to evolve and be a step ahead of one’s needs.

‘Sustainability’ is referred to in its holistic meaning as the ability to continuously do or make something indefinitely. Here it will also refer to a state where the impacts of an interior’s use or product manufacture are at least at a balance with its impacts to the natural environment, people’s quality of life and have a financially healthy functioning system.

The big question is: can we procure a luxurious design and, specifically, a luxurious interior that is sustainable? This would entail an ability for the individual and company procuring a luxury interior to be able to commission it again and again without limit and, in a further ideal world, that that same quality level can also be procured by each and every other individual and company wishing the same, and still be a choice for others in the future to have exactly the same level of luxury. A challenging aim; I will bring to your attention the increased carbon emissions reported in 2012 from India and China who are wishing a fair quality of life for their people…

The challenge we have with the issue of sustaining luxury, if we limit its definition to the material amounts we consume, to the size of an interior or full ownership of an object, is that eventually this will not be  sustained with the size and replenishing process of Earth.

Some designers only work in the traditionally luxury area of the market as they assume a bigger budget allows them to be more creative. Is it really just a budget that allows a designer to be creative? I have witnessed many an interior that has been repeated from space to space because the designer always uses the same suppliers and does not think let alone CREATE. Creativity is to use ones intellect and find solutions and look for opportunities. Long gone is the situation where a hotchpotch of green products is presented due to the lack of a wide range of ‘green’ product choices, which meant that certain personal styles weren’t achieved. A client doesn’t have to choose between having one of a number of styles – and not being environmentally friendly and sustainable if none suit.

Is Luxury Interior Design also only seen as the end product or is it also reflected in the quality of service provided? There are ways to tailor the journey a client takes through the process and delivery of their project, and it is there for designers to tailor. Cost, creativity, time, knowledge, joy and a charismatic fully capable and experienced personality can be added to offer an elevated experience of the project creation and delivery. That is luxury.

There are some issues that affect sustainable luxury design that do not necessarily incur costs but knowledge and expertise. Let’s take a colour that has been extensively associated with luxury: black. According to Michael Braungart of MBDC, black is the most sustainable fabric colour as it doesn’t need to be bleached and then coloured; it only needs the one process of colour. If we took this assumption into interior environments, black fabrics and generally dark surfaces require higher levels of spatial illumination than lighter colours and white. But lighter colours require higher levels of maintenance to keep clean and pristine (for the record, this is not a complete environmental assessment of impacts). So depending on the activities taking place and application of colour, one can design strategically reducing environmental impacts as part of the process and not compromise style.

Imagination sees for an opportunity to create a fabric that absorbs the emitted light touching its surface and feeds it back into the building’s supply; closed lighting energy cycle anyone?

There is a distinction between unrestrained consumption and luxury, as there is also between good design and luxury. One does not merit the other. For example, you visit a hotel where your every need is met but you do not own it, or you see the amazing artistry and beauty in a miniature antique portrait even if it fits in a pendant and doesn’t take up the full height of a 3m gallery wall. Humans are not unfamiliar with the terms of owning something another has owned before or seeing and valuing beauty in any size or quantity. Theoretically, we are able to share many more valuable objects and luxurious experiences, if we are conditioned to think it acceptable and just how it’s done.

‘Take back’ schemes of closed loop designed products and services give opportunity for suppliers to foster long term relationships with clients. This is an opportunity! Who would not want to have a way to retain client relationships for long term custom without having to do anything other than supply and repair as requested?

So having to think differently, innovatively, gives us an opportunity to discover services that will meet such a brief and pre-empt all our needs = luxury. Luxury is an opportunity to apply sustainable thinking, not two issues to select from. It is very exciting to see solutions driven by new thinking around sustainable challenges that create new products, considered a luxury because they are ‘new’, limited in circulation, exceed user needs, innovative and simply make life better. This form of luxury seems a very healthy and sustainable kind.

Design solutions, luxurious or not must be tuned to the utilisation of spaces that ensure environmental impacts can be sustained for each location, irrelevant if they are luxurious or basic.

If a space has zero impacts (assuming this is possible) but users do not enjoy it, it will not be retained as human nature seeks to always improve its environment to meet needs and protect what it finds beautiful and cares about.

Money doesn’t buy style. I have been there, seen it, believe me. One would say that the residential interior design profession was created in the first place because financially wealthy individuals didn’t have style and wanted it… We now know that style is not limited to just the affluent parts of society and increase or not of cost does not exclude the existence of style. The relationship between ‘luxury’ and ‘style’ are taken in this instance to assume that luxury is to only look stylish, which, if I wear my designer’s hat on, I would disagree and point you in the direction of Banksy, punk rock and staff uniforms. They all have a style but are not always in current luxury terms described as ‘stylish’.

It should be mentioned though that a higher level of financial capacity could exaggerate or enhance whatever style (or lack of) may already be present.

There is definitely a distinct difference between an interior that is described as trendy or luxurious. A project can be luxurious but have a classic timeless look or cheerfully luxurious, always reflecting current or up-coming trends. All options will have different impacts on the environment and society and below I add structure to the idea of where luxury can go and still be sustainable with three scenarios. There is an issue with regards to trends: are they forced to increase consumerism or do they reflect a natural evolution of our lifestyle and developing plethora of tastes?

Let’s run through a few broad scenarios…

Luxurious, classic and timeless look: an interior which will typically use robust, solid materials but occasionally also rare, toxic and endangered sources. It is maintained easily and won’t incorporate too much technology. Traditionally interiors that would be placed in large spatial volumes and will be owner occupied so limiting social share. Environmentally, it will benefit material supply efficiency as not being replaced frequently, low maintenance but inefficient in services as water, energy and waste technology is rapidly improving. Also current human personal lifestyle development and the need to reflect this in immediate environments is not reflected and occupant dissatisfaction and interaction is harder to integrate. Socially not sustainable with the rate of increase of earth’s population and current trend towards high occupancy urban living.

Environment: 2 > potential 3
Social: 2 > 1
Economic: 2 > 2

Trendy, cheeky and cheerful: an environment that is not meant to last more than a season or a year, has been designed with obsolescence in mind. This approach was assisting a quick fix of style to the mass market to obtain what is seen as ‘good design’ but actually offering a very short and bad purchase with huge environmental impacts. This gets ‘justified’ by changing the design at short intervals to maintain short term financial gains. If the design and consumption changes are done within a closed loop, supplied by renewable energy then it would be a winner all round. This is usually termed as a ‘Veblen goods’ principle and reflections of this exist in the interiors industry. This is using a combination of trend and demand by secrecy and mystic to increase take up of a product or establishment that is designed in a specific way. Fake, short term material choices will reflect the quick turnaround of such a business with cheap costs and no consideration of other impacts. Take back schemes and Cradle2Cradle design approach is a must. Based on current accepted thinking and way of life, it has a social and financial benefit. 

Environment: 0 > potential 2
Social: 3 > 3
Economic: 3 > 2

High consumption and constantly fashionable: perhaps the most damaging version of luxury and luxurious interiors currently. Large quantities of rare or toxic materials, unknown origin or impacts as they use whatever is labeled ‘new’ in the market, highly consuming in energy, water or waste, changed at a seasonal, by-annual or generally frequently basis. Occupant comfort and satisfaction are the primary aims, although supply very limited to certain markets and locations. This interior is beneficial to its users and financially to owners or operators but its social impacts are high as it’s defining more acutely social dysfunction.

Environment: 0 > potential 1
Social: 2 > 3
Economic: 3 > 2

The choice isn’t about luxury or sustainability but about luxury that is sustainable and luxury that is not. Luxury in the term of ‘consume and waste without thought’ is a practice no one wants to be seen doing; well… it’s just not trendy darling!

The Living Environments Assessment has a category recognising the need for beauty as integral to a sustainable building, and rationalises it as “…to recognize the need for beauty as a precursor to caring enough to preserve, conserve and serve the greater good. As a society we are often surrounded by ugly and inhumane physical environments. If we do not care for our homes, streets, offices and neighborhoods then why should we extend care outward to our farms, forests and fields?” We can only naturally sustain and protect if a design is attractive and has aesthetic or functional appeal, the greater the appeal the more we will care for it. If we make our environments beautiful, invaluable to our comfort of life – we will care for them.

We are all aware these days that the objects we purchase and surround ourselves are representations of our values and of the organisation we are part of. No one wants to be part of something that is knowingly doing damage and is being irresponsible. Leading the way is attractive, it is desirable. Traits all persons and organisations aspire to.

According to commercial retail agents during the MAPIC event in November 2012, the luxury retail sector is set to grow with more mergers and demand for mass market near us all. Financially, the luxury markets are always growing, as they are what we all aspire to or are conditioned to aspire to. So our challenge is to ensure we can take all steps possible to ensure this growth and our aspirations can be sustained, that it becomes a positive force of change and is not one big shiny sparkling bubble that will burst when we each reach it. Let’s lead, innovate and eventually luxuriate in the knowledge that we created growth, took care and experienced some of the truly good things in life.



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