Expert Decorating Advice From a Green Interior Designer

By Staff
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By Lindsey M. Roberts, Houzz 

When Emily Prugar of M House Designs in Virginia turns her eye to a new client and project, she doesn’t go out and start buying furniture and fabric first thing. She instead envisions her designs through the strategies of upcycling, re-covering and buying green — while never sacrificing style. 

The results are beautiful rooms that don’t off-gas VOCs, cost exorbitant dollars for design or waste a lot of materials. Prugar agreed to share some of her secrets behind these spaces so that we can beautify (and go green in) our own homes. Our favorite: window treatments. They bring fashion to a room while keeping cold air out. See more of Prugar’s tips and strategies below. 

M House Designs, original photo on Houzz 

1. Ask tough questions about what you buy and bring home.

Prugar says, “I ask myself, ‘Do I know what is in this product? How far did it have to travel to get to our home? Is this product designed to be safely re-covered and reused, or to return to nature? Am I using renewable energy? How clean is the water coming out of the factory, and how much paper or resources do they use? Is the product made in a socially fair way? Is this product safe for my kids?'” 

2. Check out Lee Industries for green furniture.

Lee Industries is Prugar’s favorite manufacturer. According to her, it has a huge selection of furniture, provides a great product for a reasonable price and is one of the most environmentally friendly companies around. As early as 1980, it removed chlorofluorocarbon gases from its manufacturing processes. Its standard cushions are soy based. It uses water-based finishes, recycled-fiber filling in the pillows and FSC- and SFI-certified wood frames. Also, its products are made here in the U.S. 

“You can even get organic fabrics,” she says. “And for every Natural Lee piece that is sold, they plant a tree. Even their springs are 80 percent recycled metal.” 

M House Designs, original photo on Houzz 

3. Hang window treatments.

“Window treatments help to insulate a window, protect the furniture around the window from sun damage, offer privacy but give you control of the light, and they add so much personality to a space,” Prugar says. “You can make a lot of window treatments yourself using fabric you already have: antique dish towels make great café curtains and sheets; pillowcases and even tablecloths can make great drapes or shades.” 

These window treatments were made from sheets.

M House Designs, original photo on Houzz 

4. Reenvision furniture you already own.

“Recycle pieces you already have by re-covering, painting, cleaning, restoring or reimagining a new use for them,” Prugar says. “Also, find local sources for your organic fabrics, low-VOC paints and green-furniture manufacturers.”

She has even wallpapered Ikea bookshelves. “They look incredibly stylish,” she says, “and it only cost me a roll of wallpaper and an afternoon. You can wallpaper something with any kind of paper: menus, maps, poetry pages from a book — even comic book pages.”

This is Prugar’s own upcycled TV cabinet. 

5. Shop in your house.

Prugar says that “you would be surprised how cool your collection of wooden spoons or antique tea tins looks hung on the wall in the kitchen. You would be amazed what you can do with Stitch Witchery [tape] and fabric and a couple hours over the weekend: Make your own window treatments, cover a lampshade, make pillows, add a skirt around a pedestal sink, make a canopy on the wall over the bed, etc.” 

M House Designs, original photo on Houzz 

6. Make friends with antiques store owners.

“Find an antique store you love and give them your shopping list,” Prugar says. “They can keep an eye out for that armoire you need for the guest bedroom or the old bench you want for the mudroom. Or that orange Eames chair that would look awesome in the nursery.” 

7. Buy used furniture but make sure it’s worth buying.

On Prugar’s list of questions are the following: “Is the frame heavy? Are the cushions heavy? That usually means it is made from hardwoods and well built. Is it bench made or manufactured? How is it joined?” In addition, “glue is not a good sign of a well-built piece,” she says. “But if a dresser is built like a puzzle where all the parts fit together well, you have a nice piece on your hands. If it was imported, how long has it been in the U.S.? Some furniture will crack as it adjusts to a new climate, so you want to make sure it didn’t just arrive here or the wood was treated beforehand.” 

Also look for zippers on sofa pillows. “This is one of my favorite checks for a client’s ‘bargain’ sofa,” she says. “If the pillows don’t have zippers, you can’t really clean them.” 

M House Designs, original photo on Houzz 

8. Go for a custom slipcover instead of generic.

“You would be surprised how interesting your grandmother’s old chair looks after you cover it in a funky dragon-patterned fabric,” Prugar says. “A slipcovered sofa lasts a lot longer in a house with, say, four boys, so you save money and reduce waste by not having to replace the sofa every 10 years.” 

She adds, “A good slipcover should make the sofa look upholstered. “Honestly, you want that slipcover to be a monster to get off. It should be tailored and fitted to every curve of the sofa. Then you won’t have any sagging going on, which looks messy.” 

In addition, “Most manufacturers save their patterns for their slipcovers,” she says, “so you can always find a fabric, send it to the manufacturer and have them make a new slipcover from the pattern. In two weeks, you can have a new sofa for half the cost of buying a whole other sofa.”

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