Home & Garden

Remodel, recycle and be kind to the Earth while designing your home

This monthly feature focuses on local interior designers and their ideas for choosing color schemes, furniture, art and an overall design style or scheme. Today we focus on Claudia Harmon Worthen, acertified interior designer and a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional with specialty in interior design and construction. Worthen has been the principal of Interplan Designs interior design firm in Cambria since 1986 and is currently the principal designer for EcoPlanners, LLC. She has been an adjunct instructor at Cuesta College since 1998. She can be reached through her website www.ecoplanners.net   or by calling 927-1934.

Cambria-based designer Claudia Harmon Worthen learned the value of thrift and resourcefulness at a young age.

“My Mexican family are all very creative and enterprising. I guess you can say I learned through osmosis — a way of life,” she said.

From making dollhouses out of scrap wood as a child to refinishing furniture at her mother’s antique store, she became adept at finding new ways to use old things. Today, she works with all styles and budgets, but still prefers to use furniture that is easy on the planet yet does not sacrifice style.

Salvaged materials

Although designers like Worthen have been decorating with salvaged materials for decades, the look couldn’t be more of-the-moment right now.

“The look of salvaged materials turned into treasures is appealing on many levels,” she said, citing reasons including our casual lifestyles, the desire to save money, and heightened awareness of environmental issues.

Locally-produced products have the added “green” quality of requiring less transportation, so Worthen likes to stay atop of county purveyors of salvaged goods. Suzie Cox, a former student of Worthen’s, owns Arroyo Grande’s Beach House Wood Designs with husband Grover. They specialize in refinishing, repurposing and restyling vintage furniture. They also teach customers to do their own refinishing jobs.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, Worthen recommends perusing the aisles of Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, which sells a host of salvaged materials. She onced saved a mint by purchasing salvaged cabinets and refinishing them before installing them in a garage.

“Old cabinets often have solid wood construction that holds up well to stripping, sanding and refinishing as is, or redesigning into new styles,” she said.

San Luis Obispo’s Pacific Coast Lumber sells a variety of salvaged wood products such as garden sheds, outdoor furniture, shelving and lumber. Their wood comes from a variety of sources including stormdowned, dead or dying trees.

“At any given time we might find Monterey pine, black walnut, cypress, aca cia and many exotics and burls,” she said. “Besides saving our forests, salvaged wood can be sliced in custom sizes, wider and thicker than conventional milling.”

Wood isn’t the only material suitable for salvaging. Old metals can be reconditioned or melted down and remolded. Even old glass can find new life. Worthen once salvaged stained glass windows from a house, had them repaired by a glass artist, then commissioned a woodworker to build a custom frame to create a free-standing folding screen.

You can locate one of the many local artisans who specialize in working with salvaged materials, or get creative and do the job yourself. Worthen has done both. She has created curtain rods out of numerous materials including old metal pieces and found bamboo poles. She has sewn curtains from antique linens. She has had sofas professionally reupholstered with a range of materials including painters’ drop cloths. And she has restuffed her own sofa cushions with feathers salvaged from a garage sale mattress.

In her Cuesta College Sustainable Materials class, one assignment was to take found objects and turn them into a usable interior design element. One criterion was to spend as little money as possible. The impressive results incorporated salvaged materials that ranged from scrap wood to napkin rings.

“It’s easy to just go to the store, point and purchase, but it takes imagination and a willingness to take a chance to create one-of-akind special furnishings,” she said.

Buying new

If you do buy new furniture, take the time to consider whether the piece is good for the planet and for your health.

Renewable, sustainable materials are best. If the piece is wood, look for solid woods that are certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), and avoid buying exotic rainforest woods.

Try to resist the lure of inexpensive furnishings that are often made of toxic MDF (medium-density fiber board) and particle board that is bound together with urea-formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

“For a tight budget, it's better to pursue garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores for good quality furniture,” Worthen advised.

Worthen takes time to research the manufacturer before purchasing a piece of new furniture. For instance, she recently learned that Knowlton Brothers, a furniture manufacturer based in Grover Beach, uses FSC wood whenever possible, as well as low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes.

One of Worthen’s favorite manufacturers is Lee Industries of North Carolina that has eliminated CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) from its manufacturing components.

“Chlorofluorocarbons are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas, which is known to deteriorate the earth’s protective ozone layer,” she said.

Look for manufacturers that use natural or recycled materials. For instance, Lee Industries uses a soybased foam for seat cushions and arm pads which are then wrapped with a corn-based, man-made fiber and sometimes blended with goose down and feathers. Its springs are made of 80 percent recycled metal, and furniture backs and throw pillows are made 100 percent of fibers recycled from plastic bottles.

When choosing upholstery or textiles, opt for natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, wool and silk. Not only are they renewable and nontoxic, they often have a softer look and feel.

“Natural fibers have give that lets the cloth drape in a way that synthetics are unable to do,” noted Worthen.

Synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester may be more resistant to fading, easy to clean and fireretardant, but they can feel stiffer and less yielding.

“The largest drawback to synthetics remains in the manufacturing of these petrochemical-based fibers,” said Worthen. “The gases are harmful to humans and the atmosphere.”

Perhaps the most important factor to consider is longevity. This not only includes quality, but whether the piece has classic lines and won’t go out of style. Furniture also tends to stay around longer if it is comfortable and functions well in the home.

If you can’t afford a higher-end piece, remember that vintage or antique pieces made prior to the 1980s are more likely to be well-constructed and made of solid wood. They can be refinished or reupholstered again and again, and may never see the back end of a garbage truck. Worthen herself has refinished or reupholstered nearly every piece of furniture in her house.

“I like the quality of old furniture that is worth keeping, refurbishing, and passing down to my heirs,” she said.

Reach Rebecca Juretic at rajuretic@sbcglobal.net.