July 1, 2004
Lacking sources for well-designed sustainable furniture, two men launched a business making their own.
A lot of designers may be making green claims, but one new furniture company is getting down to brass tacks—or rather high-recycled-content metal tacks. Jesse Johnson and Anthony Cochran, who started Q Collection this year, have developed a rigorous model for applying sustainable practices to every material and process that goes into making their tables, chairs, and sofas. More remarkable still, they are designing this furniture for the high-end decorator market. In other words, hemp in neutral colors is not going to cut it with their clientele.
The two met in 2000 when Johnson and his wife hired Cochran to decorate their Tribeca apartment. When Johnson, a Yale grad with a joint MBA/environmental management degree, requested environmentally friendly furnishings, Cochran was at a loss. “No one had ever asked me about this before,” he says. “It was completely new to me.” He made an effort, but what he found was uninspiring. “The only green furnishings that we could find had either a really bad aesthetic or a lack of aesthetic altogether,” he says.
With a clearly identified hole in the interiors market, Johnson and Cochran decided to combine their skills and start a furniture business. But filling that hole would be a challenge. While architects have LEED guidelines, there is no furnishings equivalent yet. Instead Johnson recruited an advisory board of environmental and health experts, and spent hours looking up materials in online databases. Much of their research was hands on. “Anthony talked to his upholsterer about how you build a sofa,” Johnson says. “We got a list of all the materials you would need.” Nine months later the two had tracked down organic muslin, free-range down feathers, jute webbing, formaldehyde-free glues—even the tacks and nail heads did not escape scrutiny. Environmentally friendly wood stains came in only about five colors, so Cochran started his own laboratory, mixing products to come up with custom shades. When they discovered that there was no sustainable upholstery fabric for the high-end market—at least nothing that Cochran, who has designed interiors for Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, found acceptable—they hired textile designer Helen Quinn and created their own line of wool and ramie colored with zero-impact dyes. To cut down on textile waste, they made patchwork pillows from the remnants.
As a result, Johnson and Cochran can identify the origin of every element in their Tod Hunter sofa—from its Forest Stewardship Council maple base and its natural latex cushions down to its jute twine and webbing. “I find it fascinating to look at a piece like that,” Johnson says. “I’m pretty sure that we can say there are no petrochemical-based materials in it.” And there is no compromise in aesthetic; in some cases green decisions actually enhanced the product. The leather on the Joe Club Chair, for example, is softer than most because it doesn’t have polyurethane coating.
But Cochran points out that purism can be counterproductive. “There’s the tendency to think you have to go all the way or you’re going nowhere,” he says. There is still no way for Q Collection to use 100 percent renewable energy or bag their fabrics in anything other than plastic. Some materials, like organic pillow ticking, are far too expensive for them to use. But Johnson and Cochran are confident that these markets will catch up over time—and that as demand increases, prices for green products will come down. “We’ve tried as much as possible to be competitive,” Johnson says. “So it doesn’t come down to price, it comes down to, do you like the design? And if you love the design, by the way, there are also no carcinogenic materials in there, there are no heavy metals in that leather—and you know, your kid will be sleeping on that one day.”
Q COLLECTION MATERIALS LIST
Woods: 100% FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified
Stains & Topcoats: water-based, low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds)
Wax: natural oils & waxes
Polish: all natural, non toxic
Paints: water-based, zero VOC
Glue: water-based, no formaldehyde
Twine, Webbing, & Burlap: natural jute
Metals: maximum recycled content
Foam: natural latex, no polyurethane
Down & Feathers: free range, hypoallergenic
Feather Ticking: natural cotton
Muslin: organic cotton flannel
Batting: organic cotton
Fabric fibers: natural wool, wood viscose, hemp
Fabric dyes: zero-impact: no carcinogenic materials, reproductive or developmental toxins, mutagens, and endocrine disrupters
Leather: vegetable dyed, no heavy metals or toxic materials
Excess materials: goal of recapturing all excess runoff
Lighting: recycled vintage vases converted into lamps
Pillows: covers made from excess fabric, hypoallergenic down & feather