Sustainable methods and local materials are replacing exoticism in interior design

Modern interior design has become preoccupied with opulence and exoticism. But with the planet unable to support this trend, designers must return to tradition by making furniture locally and with soul

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Sebastian Blakeley, Principle Partner of Sebastian Blakeley Design, believes designers should see the need for greater sustainability as a creative challenge

Over the last few decades, I have noticed a trend in interior design that sees wealth exhibited through lavish design and rare materials. Yet, with the planet’s resources fast depleting, it is time for high-end interior designers and their high-net-worth clients to rethink this unsustainable practice.

All interior designers, architects, craftspeople and artists should see that we need a dynamic shift in how we source the materials that are in such high demand. Mature, conscientious interior design firms will lead this change with modest, locally sourced interiors. Lime and clay finishes with natural, unfinished, local hardwoods, for example, avoid the need to import rare marbles, stone, quartz and exotic hardwoods.

Return to tradition
Designers should see the need for greater sustainability as a creative challenge. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans managed to create awe-inspiring buildings with incredible interiors, furniture and artefacts without importing rare marble from Brazil or timber from tropical and subtropical rainforests. It is the responsibility of designers to point out to our clients that the use of certain materials is unacceptable, no matter how much money is being thrown at the project.

Ancient knowledge, traditional techniques, lateral thinking and creativity should drive designers’ choices

We urgently need to return to traditional methods of creating beautiful design, teaching these techniques in colleges, universities and practices. Tapestries, mosaics, frescos, Venetian plaster and master carving all bring a feeling of opulence to a space while using locally sourced materials and skills. Over my career, I have restored a 13th-century Tuscan farmhouse, three late-Georgian properties in Devon and various historic buildings in Southern Spain. As such, I know it is possible to create stunning designs using humble and, crucially, sustainable methods.

Trends such as lining a shower with Brazilian quartz or Indian travertine are a dead end for the planet. It’s also a dead end for designers because it is an easy solution that doesn’t require a great deal of imagination or skill. Ancient knowledge, traditional techniques, lateral thinking and creativity should drive designers’ choices. By adapting in this way, interior designers can ensure their industry’s longevity.

The fall of timber
Timber used to be felled during a waning moon in the winter months when the sap is at its lowest and the tree is dormant, producing the most durable wood. Trees were carefully selected, felled, split or riven and thrown into fast-flowing rivers to wash out any last traces of sap. They were then quarter sawn to produce the best quality, most stable timber.

This technique has all but disappeared. Due to the extraordinary demand placed on the industry, the quality of timber has plummeted. Fortunately, I learned this traditional skill at the start of my career and have been felling and seasoning much of my own timber ever since. This knowledge has pushed me to source wood carefully and intelligently, leading me to always find out exactly where and who I buy my timber from.

For example, I know a single trunk of European walnut, grown on a small estate in the Loire Valley, was used to create the dining table and accompanying chairs for a recent commission. The tree was felled 10 years ago, then carefully and rigorously turned and seasoned. This meant that when the timber arrived at our workshop and was marked out to be cut into component sections, it did not warp, twist or split.

When visiting other craftspeople and their workshops, I see that most commercial timber is felled at the wrong time of year or force dried, causing modern carpenters no end of problems. To create a more sustainable timber industry, which can produce a higher-quality product, buyers must carefully plan their projects, purchasing materials from responsible suppliers far in advance.

A tactile relationship
Fundamentally, the creative process is about getting a feel for a space. I find it curious that a client would invite an interior designer or architect to come up with a concept for a project without having their own input. Most often, the designer or architect will place their own emotions and wishes on the project; as a result, the client never really feels at home.

Many high-end projects are speculative; they are built to be sold on. This has fuelled insincerity in what is built. It’s all about superficial impact. For many super-wealthy individuals, apartments in London, New York or Dubai have to look impressive, but they are rarely treated as homes. This has driven the irresponsible use of rare and exotic resources. I cannot take on this kind of work because I believe it is essential to feel the energy of the space that one is designing for. It’s also important to understand what the client wants to achieve and use the local environment and vernacular architecture as inspiration. I allow the space to reveal a concept, idea or vision to me as I work. I have no wish to conform to set parameters or impose limits on the client or the space I am working in.

Society has become so obsessed with speed, turnaround and profit that projects are no longer granted time to evolve. In this way, I think the design industry is comparable to the automobile industry. People are attracted to classic cars because they are handmade, creating a relationship between materials and the person handling them. The creator’s pride, love and skill become part of the finished product. It is the same with furniture, from antiques to mid-century pieces. If you watch someone in an antique shop, they cannot resist touching the furniture – the relationship is tactile.

As the furniture industry has become more automated, the physical interaction between the craftsperson and finished model has diminished, weakening the quality of the product. It’s the same with modern cars – they are so often functional, practical and soulless. The relationship between the creator and their product animates an object: through the careful choice of timber, its cutting, shaping, sanding and oiling, the chair, table, desk, staircase or building is given soul.