Monday, November 5, 2012

Thrifty Living for the Ecofabulous

Sustainable living doesn't have to cost a fortune. In fact, it can be quite the opposite.


The Great Recession, high utility bills, and limited resources have created significant challenges for many of us. The age of McMansion sized homes seems like an abandoned notion, exclusive to the one percent. The rest of us likely have adjusted to smaller, eco-smart spaces or apartment living.

In terms of apartments, the conventional wisdom that they be dressed simply as minimal, temporary-looking spaces is in no way absolute - they can easily be made to have the feel of a well lived-in home. Apartment living is a great way to save money and allow for freedom of mobility. Sprucing up your abode inexpensively will brighten your mood when you have guests this holiday season, or simply let you enjoy it better on your own. Here are some ideas and resources to help decorate your apartment or home nicely on a budget, while also reducing your negative impact on the environment.

Sales and collecting: Yard, garage, and discount stores are the best place to find home furnishings for cheap. Furniture, wall art, and storage items don’t need to be bought brand new. You can find beds and couches and revive them with mattress covers and slip covers. Décor doesn’t even have to be purchased. Do you collect classic vinyl records, movie posters or have a collection of vintage bottles? Why not use them as décor in your apartment? Put them on display walls, in shadow boxes, or on a shelf to bring instant personalized home furnishings to your apartment. You will be surprised how collections can be an innovative focal point for a room.

A friend of my wife was on the Today Show recently because she represents ranks of people labelled as "hoarders." A lot of Americans seem to be holding on to sentimental things more today than ever, and not necessarily as the result of some newly declared nationwide neurosis. I use more sensitive sounding terms like "enthusiast," or "preservationist," or "collector" to describe them, especially since I'm married to one.

It's not that we need's to hold on to everything ever owned in our lives - of course not - but we're at a tipping point in our disposable culture where the forces of industry are pushing us to constantly consume more, while the winds of change indicate that the four R's are the genuine keys to our survival as a species - reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose. Sometimes I wonder if the US Chamber of Commerce helped create that show simply to keep folks hooked on throwing stuff out to make way to buy more new junk for the landfill. I'll stop there before we have to take on another legal battle.

Websites and classifieds: Websites like Craigslist, Backpages, and other free online classifieds are a great resource for finding home furnishings. Not everybody can hold on to belongings these days. People are often moving out of their homes and need to get rid of items fast and cheaply.

Vintage Deco Lamp.
Here in Philly, one can find online "swap" groups like Philly Freecycle, which is part of a nationwide Freecycle Network started in Tucson in 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson's downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills.

Other resources such as estate sales are published in online classifieds as well. Estate sales often sell items from someone who has passed away, but they can also be from those who can no longer financially afford their belongings. Take advantage of these because you may discover one of a kind bargains.

The diy planet: It's quite likely that you and some friends may be able to assemble anything you put your mind to. Do it yourself tables, chairs, and entertainment centers can save you money. Ikea, for example, has décor and storage ideas for every budget, and every assembly skill level. They also claim to be eco-friendly because they use a certain amount of recycled materials and less toxic binding agents.

But if you're truly interested in saving the planet's dwindling resources, keep in mind that it requires energy to recycle, so the idea that a cheap, toss-away, recycling culture will get us all off the hook from further degradation of our environment is somewhat misleading. Recycling is good, but reuse, repurpose, and swap is my recommendation, whenever possible. I often shop for antiques and vintage pieces or go to thrift stores. I bring my own re-usable cup to the coffee shop, and use an aluminum water bottle over recyclable/disposable plastic ones. Perhaps, someday, we'll see the return of the milkman and his refilled glass bottles at our doorstep, just like on Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver. If you don't know the reference, you're either too old and forgot, or too young and never saw the shows.

McCobb gem, Mid Century Furniture Warehouse.

Burke table, Mid Century Furniture Warehouse.

To acquire pre-owned furniture, vintage shops like Mode Moderne here in Philadelphia offer a great assortment of quality home furnishings that haven't hit the often pricey 100-year antique mark. Likewise, my neighbor Brian Lawlor owns the Mid Century Furniture Warehouse in Fishtown, which, like Mode Moderne, hosts a wide variety of Danish modern and Eames era furniture. His shop has been flourishing with activity lately, drawing clients who are local vintage-lovers, out-of-state mid century connoisseurs and even production assistants for locally filmed movies, including the upcoming Dead Man Down, starring Colin Farrell. They're now set with a great new space, and business is booming.

For vintage lighting, check out the alluring magical realm of The Classic Lighting Emporium in Philly's Northern Liberties. These lamp enthusiasts are great to chat with, and they do repair-work on existing treasures, like in the old days before condemnation to the landfill became the answer for troubles with all of our disposable society's cheaply made products.

Anywhere Lighting Kami Led Chandelier (Google Affiliate Ad)

If you prefer something new and can afford more than the Ikea variety, consider investing in furniture that will last for generations - I still utilize my father's beautifully crafted, hand-me-down Eames era desk from the 1950's. Furniture-makers such as Maine's Thomas Moser, with their exquisite designs and one-of-a-kind workmanship makes items that are built to last a lifetime and more. Pompanoosuc Mills has a similar ethos, and has a local showroom in Philadelphia. Their prices aren't off the charts and they offer good solid wood pieces, custom made from Vermont Forest Stewardship Council sources. They've been at it since 1973, and green before the term was ever conceived as a marketing ploy.    

Add and coordinate color: This is more important than people think. A fresh, nicely thought out color scheme is likely to give to folks the most prominent indication that you've done a makeover. Adding color to your apartment or home with bed and bath accessories can renew a home's esthetics and revitalize the atmosphere immediately. Coordinating bed linens, curtains, and an area rug can pull together a dull space with minimal effort and expense. Matching towels, bath rugs, and shower curtains will help you feel and look good in your bathroom, and ready to take on the challenges outside.

Efficient use of space: If you're downsizing from a larger space, or taking on guests - a reality of these tough years - there are several ways to help make the best use of those spaces. Loft beds are a cheap way to accommodate several people in a small space. Loft beds are reminiscent of bunk beds, which take advantage of vertical space. The items can be bought at furniture stores, garage sales, or check college dorm and apartment bulletin boards for quick sales. Even if you don’t have a lot of people in your apartment, the beds can be utilized to straddle a desk area beneath to save valuable space in your bedroom.

Classic Lighting, Philly.
Under-bed storage and multi-purpose furniture, such as sofa-beds, or coffee tables that expand and convert into office desks, with filing chambers and more, are great for small space situations. And many of these can be found at affordable stores such as Ikea. A nice series of convertible coffee table/desks is sold through local American Signature Furniture stores.

Likewise, while visiting my mother recently in Chicago at her quaint, efficient condo, she demonstrated how her sunlit kitchen table could easily become an improvised office desk, when needed. This I found especially beneficial because it allows natural light onto the workspace, and brings the office into a generally uplifting environment - the hearth. It also solves the problem of her not having to do all her tasks at her traditional office desk, as beautiful a piece of Chippendale style furniture you could imagine, but one that faces a blank wall. She prefers the kitchen table instead because it allows for a variety of seating focal points from which to choose.

There was a time when designers often drew distinct boundaries between eating, sleeping, and work environments. To some degree, events of the last few years have made us rethink those psychological aspects of space planning and proxemics - at least I have.

With the use of the right resources for quality items one can decorate a home without having to peel off a lot of Ben Franks. We live in a mobile age, with folks still continually in flux, and moving in and out of spaces. These tough years have created many money saving opportunities and resources, as ironic as that might sound. You might as well make use of them to hold on to your wallet while helping the environment at the same time.--D.A. DeMers.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Some content was updated from our earlier post. Images by Douglas DeMers via Designer in Exile, unless noted otherwise.

Up next, using maps to tell stories and connect communities - powerful new tools for visual design and communication. Our new multimedia Designer in Exile exclusive post featuring a podcast with a very special guest host.

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  1. Great info. Keep up the good work!

    Anne Payne

  2. A great was to save space is get a shallow yet tall shelving system so you can make the most of floor space for furniture or even a bed!