Modern technology has swept through the design industry, from 3D printing to the use of artificial intelligence. But of all the industry’s latest advances, the most progressive ideas focus on sustainability: a movement away from fast-fashion furniture, poorly made products, and lack of empathy in design.
As demand has increased for sustainable design — meaning furniture and other goods created thoughtfully with health and environmental impact in mind — it’s now become commonplace for businesses to develop innovative ways to reduce waste, consider ecological balance, and be mindful of inclusivity.
In Kingston, for instance, a former autobody shop has become home to several businesses, each with its own focus on sustainability. The nearly 10,000 sq ft building was purchased in 2018 by woodworker Suzanne Walton, whose company Rowan Woodwork produces custom high-end cabinetry with an emphasis on accessibility.
“Woodworking is in my blood; my grandfather was a master joiner in the UK,” Walton says. She studied Furniture Restoration and Conservation at Manchester College of Arts and Technology in England, where she lived before moving to the region nearly 30 years ago. She opened Rowan in 2014, and after outgrowing a space in Saugerties, the new shop in Kingston let Walton and her team spread out.
With room to spare, she reached out to other businessowners in the furniture design industry. Woodworker Megan Offner, owner of New York Heartwoods, and Annika Lindgren, who runs Ommella Upholstery, were eager to rent spaces. Though outwardly this might give the impression of a women-owned-business collective, Walton says it’s not deliberate.
“The idea was really about other creatives working together; not specifically women,” she says. “Being a queer woman myself and supporting people of all genders, I have to say this was definitely not intentional. We do have guys working here and saying it’s a women-only shop would be non-inclusive. I’m more about all-inclusive.”
Still, the ease in which Walton could find women-owned-business tenants does exemplify further shifts in the maker industry toward increased diversity. “I think there is a certain amount of power in being a woman in my field — there really aren’t too many of us, so people tend to remember you,” Walton says. “And women often like to hire another woman to work on their projects. When you’re in a person’s home, for a year sometimes, it’s a pretty intimate space and a privilege to be trusted in this way. You’re often the first person a client sees in the morning, pre-coffee, and you become a part of the family for the time you’re there.”
“More diversity can only be a good thing,” agrees upholsterer Annika Lindgren. “It means everyone will be exposed to ideas from more backgrounds. A community that’s open to new ways of thinking is stronger and more adaptable to change in the future.”
“I think there is a certain amount of power in being a woman in my field — there really aren’t too many of us, so people tend to
— Suzanne Walton, Rowan Woodwork
Lindgren, who previously worked out of her home, saw moving her upholstery business to the shop as an opportunity to take on bigger restoration projects, giving new life to a wider variety of furniture that might have otherwise been discarded. “I was working at a lovely little upholstery shop in town which unfortunately went out of business. There are very few upholsterers in the area, so in 2017 I decided to open my own upholstery shop in a spare room in my house,” she says. “Now I can’t wait to get my hands on an antique sectional couch to restore or be able to work on an entire set of dining chairs at once instead of one or two at a time.”
This sort of long-lasting heirloom furniture is what Megan Offner aims to create through her company, New York Heartwoods. But her passion for eco-conscious operations goes a step further: Her designs come strictly from downed or ill trees, with the ultimate goal of running a zero-waste operation.
“We design to highlight the beauty and uniqueness of the wood and use it consciously so that very little is wasted,” Offner says. “Our lumber scraps go to Jon’s Bread for his wood-fired oven and our sawdust goes to farmers and pit-firing ceramicists.”
In her previous career, Offner built sets for fashion and advertising photo shoots. “Building sets then throwing them away within hours or days was eating at my conscience,” she says. “Having grown up around a lot of clear-cuts in Montana, I have a sense for how devastating our consumption of wood products can be to the natural world.”
In 2008 Offner studied permaculture, silviculture, and sustainable building and design. “I ended up taking a workshop in 2010 on converting dying and diseased trees into finished wood products,” she explains. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of having a creatively fulfilling livelihood that was beneficial to nature and resulted in almost zero waste.” Two weeks later, she opened New York Heartwoods at a sawmill in Warwick. At the time she was only milling wood, but eventually customers asked for furniture. She stopped milling and moved her business to the Kingston shop after the fabrication side took off.
“It’s an incredibly fulfilling way to work,” she says. “To me, it’s not enough to just make a beautiful product. It’s about how much impact our work can have, and to whom and what we can be of service.”