Response Magazine

Understand the importance of the indoors

Most people see interior design as a merely decorative and somewhat frivolous endeavor.

The truth is that interior design is complex, and the way it is done affects our environment and our communities.

We see the far-reaching effects of design choices in many places, but one place to start is with the materials used in constructing much of the furniture in homes today — and even the homes themselves.

From the pillows on your bed and the couch in your living room to your dining table and floor finish, many finishes and furnishings in American homes are created in ways that have damaging consequences, for us and the world around us, in their construction and in their use.

Chemicals used as flame retardants in pillows, couch foam, building insulation, and other common household products have been linked with genetic mutations, though their side effects are largely unknown. Those chemicals show up in the outdoors, far away from their sources, according to several studies reported by The Washington Post in 2013. Scientists have detected traces of these flame retardants in waterways, wildlife, and human breast milk; they have even been detected in Arctic marine mammals.

Formaldehyde, a chemical that causes headaches and dizziness and may cause cancer after lengthy exposure, is found in many pressed-wood products like particle board and plywood. You can also find it in many types of wallpaper and paint.

These are just two examples of materials that are potentially dangerous to humans and to our environment, and yet they are found nearly everywhere you look in a typical home. Products containing these chemicals are often the cheapest options available to purchase, and a natural, sustainably produced couch or other furnishing is an unaffordable luxury to some. Not everyone has the resources to choose interior design elements that are ecologically friendly and do not release toxic gas.

But here, like in many areas of life, the choices of the wealthy dictate the options available to the less privileged: One of the reasons these design elements are not affordable is that there is very little demand for them.

I firmly believe that those who have the resources to make health- and ecologically conscious design decisions are morally obligated to do so — if for no other reason than to make those options more widely available to our neighbors.

And for many people, the question seems to be more one of priorities than of spending power.

Americans are, on the whole, known for consuming massive quantities of material goods. The average U.S. home contains 300,000 items, according to the Los Angeles Times. NPR reports that the average American home has tripled in size over the past 50 years, and Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on items that are nonessential, according to data from the federal Commerce Department.

I suggest two courses of action based on these facts. One is to do some research — know what chemicals your furniture and textiles are emitting, and look into products made in sustainable and ethical ways.

The second: If you have the resources, consider committing to spending your money in a way that supports and encourages products made in sustainable ways without the use of harmful and toxic chemicals.

Your environment, your neighbors, and your own body will thank you.

Beth Miller

Beth Miller is an assistant professor of interior design. She has been an interior designer and sustainability consultant for Miller Interior Design in Seattle for 15 years.

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