Sustainable, Non-Toxic Furniture: What You Should Know Before You Buy with Shannon Willey

Today I'm speaking with Shannon Willey, the proprietor of Sea Green Designs LLC in beautiful South Hampton, New York.

Her business has grown from a five hundred square foot studio space to a large 2000 square foot retail store with complete interior design services.
In a world where retail is having a very hard time, Shannon has grown her business exponentially and it continues to soar. This has happened because the store is very unique. Shannon searches the world for beautiful furniture, lighting, and wall decor that's ecological and better for your health.

The great news for all of us is that good-for-you home decor is being made with a designer look and feel.

We all know the Hamptons. We've seen the photos in People Magazine showing the celebrities vacationing there. They have deluxe homes and you can bet this clientele is not going to buy ugly stuff, even if it's good for your health.

​​​​​​​That's exactly what Shannon shares. She's created a cheat sheet for everyone listening to this episode that highlights the important things to consider when you're decor​​​​​​​ating and you want to create an even healthier environment to live in. 

N: Good morning, Shannon.

S: Good morning, Nancy.

N: I'm so excited to talk with you, and what a wonderful day it is, after the storm we had yesterday. It's absolutely beautiful here on the West Coast. What is it like back in the Hamptons?

S: It's pretty chilly. We're in the 30's here. But it's a beautiful day. Actually, I got to take a walk on the beach again this morning. I can't complain.

N: Yes, I just got up and did a sunrise walk, and it was so spectacular, so beautiful and inspiring, almost like a walking meditation when you're out there looking at sunrise. I'm so glad you got me up with our time change between the East Coast and the West Coast. This worked out well.  I'm excited today for you to talk with us, and to share what you're doing in the Hamptons, and your mission. To start out, I know everyone has heard of the Hamptons. But we haven't all visited there. Tell us a little bit about this famous place.

​​​​​​​S: Well, the Hamptons  have a lot of history, which I don't think people realize. But Southampton, the town I live and own my business in, is the oldest English settlement in New York.

N: Wow, I did not know that.

S: Yes, it's very interesting. It's on our placard as you drive into town. And the Hamptons have a quaint old world charm of a seaside village with some of America's best beaches. In fact, Cooper's Beach was voted the number one beach in America in 2010. And that beach is right here in Southampton where I live.

N: Well, it sounds like we should all visit.

S: Yes, it's a great place to visit. The coastal environment is what I love. But we're also blessed with a lot of culture, and vineyards, and golf courses, and some incredible architecture, and design. Not to mention our fair share of celebrities, which is really what I think people think of when they think of the Hamptons.

N: Yes, that certainly is what's in the news. Tell me when is the best time to visit the Hamptons if you didn't want to have the crowds?

S: Well, if you don't want the crowds, I recommend the fall. The fall is beautiful here. I mentioned the vineyards. It's a great time to go wine tasting, and apple picking, and pumpkin picking, and going through the corn mazes. The beaches are beautiful, and there are not nearly as many people.

Our population triples in the summertime. That is our busy season, and it is beautiful here. But it is very busy, and there's a lot of traffic, which our quaint little towns are not very well-equipped to handle. I recommend the fall.

N: It sounds like I need to put that on my bucket list. A fall trip to the Hamptons.

S: Absolutely. I'd love to have you.

N: Well, I would love to actually physically see your store. Tell us about it. I know it's big, and it's beautiful. And tell us a little bit about how that all came to be.

S: My business started 19 years ago now. I started out as a decorative painter. I was 27 years old. I had a 500 square foot studio, which was also my retail space filled with things that I would hand paint myself.

I graduated from college with two degrees, one in fashion design, and one in environmental studies. I had been paying the bills by working in a furniture store here in the Hamptons after I had graduated from FIT in the city. I got involved in merchandising and buying in that furniture store. That's where my passion for interior design was ignited. That experience gave me the foundation to start my own business in 2000. And that evolved to include interior design in 2002. Eventually  I honed my niche to include my passion for sustainability with my bachelor's degree in environmental studies.

About ten years into business, I changed the name of the business to what it is today, Sea Green Designs,  and really started focusing on incorporating products that were not just coastal, our aesthetic,  which has to do with the environment that I live in and where my clients are. But the green of Sea Green reflects the sustainability aspect.

Our store, which is now 2,000 square feet, is also my design studio where we meet with clients. What we put on our floor, and what we sell off the floor, 90% of what I source, has some attributes of sustainability. Whether it's made here locally from a local artist who is using reclaimed materials, organic materials, or even if the manufacturer has a very high level of sustainable manufacturing practices. That's what we focus on. And that's kind of how my business has evolved, and how and, why I am where I am today.

​​​​​​​N: Now let me ask you this, do people come into the store really looking for environmentally friendly products or do they see something beautiful in the window, and they're pleasantly surprised to find out it's going to be really good for them in your home?

S: It's the latter and that's really my goal. I really do try and entice people with just beautiful pieces. And then they are pleasantly surprised to find that maybe a sofa they're looking at has eco friendly foam ~ soy based foam ~ instead of something made out of petroleum.

One of our favorite pieces is a beautiful chandelier where the beads are recycled Coke bottle glass. It's just a beautiful piece, and a beautiful shade of green. People are amazed to find out that the beads are made out of recycled Coke bottles. Surprising them is something I strive to do.

I'm trying to let people know that things can be beautiful, and should be beautiful, but there can also be other benefits.

N: It sounds so beautiful. Now I have to stop and ask because I think people are going to be listening and wondering if they can see this online? Can they buy it from you online? How does that work?

​​​​​​​S: Yes, we do have eCommerce on our website. It's something that we're always trying to update. This chandelier is available on our website, as well as some other products from that particular manufacturer.

N: Well, it sounds spectacular. I might have to go look at that.

S: Please do.

N: Tell us about your mission. What are you trying to achieve when people come into the store?

S: Well, I like to say my mission is to change the world one home at a time. We strive to design coastal retreats that are happy, healthy places for friends and family to gather. As I mentioned, the summers are a busy time. People are always gathering in their homes. And our designs always incorporate elements of our coastal environment. But the style is always reflective of our client's personality and how they live in their home.

We strive to create beautiful spaces using products that happen to be good for both people and the planet. And again, just with the example of people walking through the door, our clients don't necessarily hire us because they're interested in sustainability. They really love our aesthetic. They're pleasantly surprised to know that they're getting added benefits by the way that we're designing their homes.

​​​​​​​When someone walks through the door as a retail client, what they take home is better for them then another piece they might have found someplace else.

​​​​​​​N: Air quality in our homes is so important. And of course you're at the beach there, and maybe the windows and doors are open, but for a good portion of the year, your homes are probably shut up. If you have products in your home that are off-gassing, it's just not a healthy environment for you to be coming into and living in. I think we all need to start planning for this, and planning for our health and wellness in our homes. Up until this point we haven't all thought about that.

S: No, and it's really interesting. It's been difficult  to articulate this aspect of sustainability. But sustainability and health really do go hand in hand. And petrochemicals, without getting too technical, are really one of the big areas. They're in everything and we can't eliminate them. But we can reduce the amount of exposure we have to them. And that's where organic materials that aren't using chemicals and the finishes we use and the paints we use in our homes ~ all of those things that release toxins into the air ~ they can have significant effects on our health. Everything from asthma to skin reactions, to something as serious as cancer if you're exposed to these chemicals for long enough and with levels that are high enough.
It's really something that goes hand in hand. If we reduce the amount of these petrochemicals, we're also doing something that's better for the environment. And that's why I like to say we can change the world one home at a time by sort of reducing what we bring into our homes.  We're reducing the amount of these petrochemicals used in the production of fabrics, flooring, and paints. 
N: Tell me about products that really light you up. I know you've mentioned to me the wood that's harvested out of the riverbeds. Tell me about that. How is it used? And where did you find it? How did you get involved with this old growth river wood?

S:  This is one of those things where I go on my buying trips, and I'm looking for pieces for both our store, as well as client projects. Sometimes you just come across some things that are interesting to you, and then you begin to ask questions, and you might be intrigued by the texture. In this case, there was an accessories company that I found. They were making some beautiful signs in white washed wood. Other pieces were made out of this old growth river wood, which was actually dredged from rivers.

S: It was wood that had fallen into the river that was just beginning to disintegrate. No new trees needed to be cut down. This wood was taken out, was dried, and was able to be used for these beautiful accessories. It's also available as flooring, and wall panels, and other things like that. It was fascinating to me because I wasn't particularly searching for this. I just happened to come across it. It was just one of those things where if you ask enough questions, you really can feel very good about what you find.

N: This is interesting. Do you carry products in the store that are made out of these materials? What kind of things are people using this kind of material for if they're doing a remodel?

S: Many people are familiar with the use of reclaimed lumber or flooring. It's very popular, especially when old barn wood is taken down.  We use it often times in tables, dining tables, things like that. That's a great place to use it.

I have a great story about a product that sort of found me. It's about some furnishings. The benefit of having a retail space is that  often times local craftsmen will come in. You know, we take a look at what they're doing. This past summer we had a very funny story. We had two very foreboding men walk in. My assistant likes to say one of them looked like he was from Sons of Anarchy, covered in tattoos with a scruffy beard.
We sort of took a step back. But these two men were brothers and they had started handcrafting their own furniture. The name of the business is Brooder.  They're located about 20 miles from us, so they're very local. They happened to come in, seeing what we did, and started working with us to create some pieces with live edge woods. It just was a fascinating experience.

You know you were just sort of taken aback by this character, thinking, "Oh, my gosh." All of a sudden they're showing us their work and talking about how they produce their materials, and how they're using low VOC and no VOC finishes. They're using eco-friendly finishes so there's no off- gassing. And they're using reclaimed lumbers and handcrafting iron bases.

It's one of those things that light me up. Things like that do. You're just taken by surprise. And you end up having these beautiful pieces in the store with a story.  When you take them home ... when you purchase these pieces, it is a story to tell to your family, to your friends when they come in. It's something that you can enjoy for a very long time. And I think that's really important when you're furnishing your home.

N: I love that story. It's fantastic.  I can visualize them walking in. 

Let's say my home is kind of done, but I want to curate a better experience.  I think that's when a lot of people get stuck. They bought something many years ago. And the home looks like you're walking into a time warp, and not in a good way. How can someone like that curate a better experience in their homes? What can they do and be environmentally friendly too, not just throwing everything out. What would you suggest?

S: Well, I love this question because I started my business as a decorative painter, I got very involved in refinishing furniture. And chalk paint is very, very popular now. It's something that we actually carry in our store, and have offered workshops to teach people how to paint these pieces. Some things do need to be discarded. I recommend  donating them to Habit for Humanity. Let someone else take your pieces and turn them into something else.

Pieces that you can keep in your home, and that you can give a new finish, give a new life to, is really a great way to as you say, curate a better experience. The product that we carry is Amy Howard At Home. She likes to say you can enjoy the bragging rights. You know, when you refinish a piece you are rescuing, restoring and redecorating.
But taking those pieces that are stuck in the time warp, and giving them a new finish to be in keeping with the new look of your home, this is really a great way to reduce your footprint by not just discarding and by not purchasing something new. You'll also have this wonderful conversation piece that you changed, and you did yourself.

N: I have a confession. I have a piece in my own home and I 'm working with fabulous artisans all the time. But I'm fearful of doing DIY projects myself. I feel that I don't have the skillset. It's not really my forte. And so I've got a piece that would really benefit from Amy Howard's paints.  I just haven't done it. I've  gotten quotes to have it done for me but the quotes are quite high. And you've got to get it there, and get it back.  It really adds up.  I'm one of those people that's saying, "Gosh, I've got something that looks like a time warp." It was a very expensive and lovely piece, but it's decoratively painted, and it just looks passe.

What would you say to someone like me? Because I know there are a lot of listeners out there, where maybe they do have something like this, but like me, they're afraid. We all feel like we don't have the skillset. Is it really as hard as we're making it out to be? Or as labor intensive? What would you tell us?

S: I would tell you to start small. And this is what happens. We have done many times what we call a "Bring Your Own Piece Workshop" here in our shop. And just to tell you how easy this can be is, those workshops tend to be three hours long. And so if you know that you can take a piece, and from start to finish, completely change it in three hours, then you know that it's not going be too time consuming.

What I suggest is starting with a small piece, and that's what we recommend when we do these workshops. This can be something like a small side table, or I've had people that want to do a whole set of dining chairs, that will bring a chair in so they get the experience of finishing it.

N: You could do one chair in three hours?

S: You could do one chair in three hours, depending on what you want as your overall finish.  I can't say that you could get every finish done in three hours. You know if you wanted something more detailed, or more layered, I can't say that everything could be done in three hours. But in general you could take a dining chair, and you could finish a dining chair in three hours.

Now, if you have ten dining chairs, do you want to spend thirty hours doing all of your chairs? You might not. But if you have a piece like you're suggesting, don't tackle a big project to start off with. It can be intimidating. But tackle a small piece. A mirror is a great thing to do. And it really is very easy, and there's plenty of tutorials out there. We're working on putting one together on our website.

What's beautiful about chalk paints, first of all, they're completely non-toxic. But there's very little prep work that's involved in it. If it's a DIY, that's what I recommend you start with. Now there's a lot of things that you could do that are much more involved. But chalk paint is a really good place to start, and you can get some really beautiful authentic patinas just by layering the paints, putting on waxes. And it's actually very, very easy. You just have to get started somewhere.

N: All right, so this is great advice. And one last question.  I know that when I work with professionals, they always make a little sample for me of what I'm gonna get. Sometimes they make two samples and we kind of work back and forth on that. Should a DIY person do a little sample board for themselves, even for the small projects, so that they don't feel like, "Okay, now I've ruined my mirror"?

S: Oh, absolutely.

N: Okay, so that's one of the steps.

S: Yes, if you are hesitant. It's just like trying a new color on your walls. I would recommend you get a sample, and you take a look, and you decide. When it comes to things like chalk paint, there are a lot of ways to adjust your finish. Do you want it to look a little more old? Do you want it to look a little cleaner?

I do recommend doing a sample, and experimenting with it. I think you'll find that it's actually quite a lot of fun. As I was saying, I can't tell you how many times people have come in just because they've seen that we have the paints. And they say, "Well, I'm gonna try that." And then a month later, two months later, they're coming in with their cellphones, showing us what they made, and buying more paint because they've decided to tackle another piece.

It's something that once you get going and you take that initial step, most of the time people realize that it's not so difficult to do.

N: You're getting me motivated, so this is good.

S: Excellent. Well, I expect to see the before and after, Nancy.

N: Well, I'll keep you posted on that. Let's get back to thinking about having a healthier home. What other things besides furniture, and reusing furniture that you have, should we all be thinking about?

S: In terms of a healthy home, you want to make sure that you're using non-toxic paints. Definitely stay with water based versus oil based products. Oil based products are those petrochemicals where you're off-gassing in your breathing space, and effecting your indoor air quality. Organic fabrics materials are also things to consider in your home.

N: Now is a perfect time for us to be talking about bedding because everyone could be coming to your home to visit over the holidays. Bedding definitely is one where we could get more environmentally friendly, right?

S: Oh, absolutely. When you think of organic, and organic groceries, upi think of them being more expensive. And when it comes to textiles, especially bed linens, there are so many options out there that are not necessarily more expensive. Read the label or just ask the questions, and you'll find that you sleep a lot better when you're sleeping with these organic linens.

N: Yes, I have some clients that absolutely love bamboo bedding. I have not used them. But people really like them.

​​​​​​​S: Yes, bamboo is fantastic. It feels like silk. It's a wonderful natural material and is 100% renewable. It's a really great choice when it comes to bedding.

N: Shannon, you have a wonderful little freebie, a cheat sheet that you put together. Tell us about that.

S: Yes, so we have what I call Seven Top Tips for a Coastal Sustainable Home. And it's basically sort of reiterating a lot of what we talked about today with some more specifics about what you should be looking for when you're furnishing and accessorizing your home. These tips will help you create not just a sustainable atmosphere, but a healthier, happier home.

N: If people have been listening to all of this, and they've been thinking that, "Gee, I wish I wasn't out on my walk, and I could write some of this down," they don't have to write it down because we put together this little cheat sheet and you can download it here. But give us three takeaways that you can share with people that are listening.

S: Well, the first takeaway would be that what you choose to build, furnish, and accessorize your home with can make a difference in your health and happiness. Choosing to use organic and natural materials, as well as furnishings, and finishes that don't bring volatile chemicals into your home, means better breathable air, less chance of allergic reactions, and a better night's sleep.

​​​​​​​The second is to ask questions about how pieces are made. Where they're made? What they're made of? Because knowing the answers to these questions will help you feel really good about what you bring into your living space, and can give you much joy.

And the third thing would be that you don't have to get rid of everything when you redecorate. Sometimes, it makes sense to keep existing pieces, and give them a new life, and a new finish. And it often makes for great conversation too.

N: When you're in a home, and you are redesigning, or redecorating it, are you trying to reuse the pieces? And how do you figure out which pieces you're going to reuse? And then do you actually refinish them? How does that work?

S: We work with a lot of clients that are sometimes starting with nothing. It's a second home, and so they don't have pieces to bring over. But when people have pieces that are sentimental, or they're trying to use a piece from an old house, we definitely will try and work with them. We incorporate them into the plan from the beginning if we know there's a piece that someone wants to use. And if it doesn't fit the aesthetic, that's when we will talk to our faux finisher about refinishing the piece. Maybe we'll use it in a different area of the house then it would have previously been used. It's something that we work with people all the time.

Reupholstery is also something we should discuss. We've talked a lot about painting. But I work with a number of clients who have some very, very well made upholstered pieces and you cannot find that kind of frame. You cannot find that kind of comfort. We'll recover them. We do this all the time. And again this gives us an opportunity to bring in organic materials for those pieces, that suit the client's needs. That's also a great way to be able to reuse something rather than discard something.

​​​​​​​N: Yes,  I have even gone and found old pieces with clients that we specifically are looking to redo. You are 100% right in terms of the quality of the frame and unique shape. If there are some aspects of a shape that we are opposed to, usually we can modify that part of the shape, and so reupholstery is fantastic.  It's a great way to customize a piece for your home and like you said get the exact comfort that you want, and make sure that it is not something that is gonna break down on you, or has materials in it that just aren't going to hold up. I love what you're saying about upholstery, and of course fabrics. Fabric selection is wide open then in terms of what color, and style you want on your upholstery. That's a wonderful idea, and one that we don't think of in the space of sustainability. But it's an important one for us to talk about.

Do you have any great stories about reupholstering something, and having it look completely different?

S: Oh, absolutely. I'll try and maybe get you a photo to share with your listeners on this. We're currently working on a project on the ocean. A beautiful, beautiful home that had a peach colored sofa.

N: And they wanted to change the color?

​​​​​​​S: Yeah. Imagine that, yes. But it was not even a question of replacing the sofa. It was a very large sofa, about 100 inches wide, and really beautifully done. Just the way that the cushion covered the arm was very, very different. And it was never in the client's mind to replace it with something new. It was always something to reupholster.

​​​​​​​The way that we reupholstered it and the change of fabric, and how we transformed that room, it's absolutely night and day. And that's usually what happens when we work on these projects. I'm sure you can picture the difference of a bergere chair, and all the wonderful things you can do if you do a contrasting fabric in the back, and something different on the front. I think we have a picture of one of those in our Seven Top Tips.
You can take a look at how we transform those.

​​​​​​​N: Yes, wonderful. I look forward to a before and after photo that we can add to the episode page when you have that. And we will have the Seven Top Tips available as a downloadable so everyone can get it and look at the chair. I think you've got several pieces of furniture in there. Talk to us a little bit about your contacts, and how if they want to shop your store, but they're not in the Hamptons, how they can go about that. 
Contact: Shannon Willey, Sea Green Designs, LLC
​​​​​​​phone: 631-259-3612

"Sustainability and health really do go hand-in-hand." ~Shannon Willey on Design Your Second Half, the podcast
Wishing you a lifestyle you love,

 ~ Nancy
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