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OMG! Its gorgeous and really green:
An Interview with Peter Danko

Q: What is the state of Green Design as we know it today? 

A: Actually, there is not a lot of green design in the marketplace. But there sure is a move toward green ingredients. I mean really, its not very sexy talking about green ingredients; so big manufacturers call it green design. I looked up the word design in the dictionary, and it will tell you design is about how an object looks, it is about its esthetic sensibility.  It says nothing about ingredients.


Q: How do you see your work in relation to the job the USGBC is doing?

A: The USGBC has really taken off and is doing a great job. The LEED initiatives are making great progress in greening of the status quo. What I am trying to do with my work is to create a seismic shift to cultivate a green esthetic. Something with an optimistic future where green is obvious and not hidden in the workings of the object.


Q: As a longtime innovator in the green movement, what’s your take on the various standards for green furniture, such as the BIFMA test, Greenguard certification, Cradle-to-Cradle, etc.?

A: It’s a very exciting time for someone like me who’s been green since green wasn’t cool. I think it is great that we are finally waking up. Like any infant industry, there are many organizations with many different standards, so eventually there will be a weeding out.   Multiple standards are confusing because most speak to different aspects of sustainability.  My own standard is more stringent than any of these protocols, but I applaud them all. My only complaint is that too many people think of these standards as an added layer in the process of designing and creating furniture… another hurdle to clear. I think that’s an upside down view. For me, green values are the foundation of everything, not an extra layer… and I think that the industry is moving toward a point where almost everyone will understand that.


Q: What would you say to cynics who think ecological responsibility can wait?

A: A lot of people have trouble seeing the big picture. Some think it is a fad. Most people and corporations think we should do something, but are afraid to take the first step. There are even certifying organizations that aid manufacturers in maintaining the status quo. Their thinking is if we change a few ingredients and call it green design, then the problem is solved.  It is unfortunate that many people are approaching design like it is a health food. There’s a sly assumption that all you have to do to a product that has inertia in the marketplace is to change a few ingredients and market it with a green spin. I think that’s cynical. Most industrial designers with a good understanding of materials technology would agree. Right now I think everyone is waiting for someone to take the first step to becoming truly green. The first principle of thinking green is that green products and designs create a net gain, not just for the planet, but also for every person on this planet and us as an industry. This is not some kind of tradeoff between social responsibility and commercial success. Green means BOTH, but not everybody understands that yet. New movements always offer huge opportunities for profit, but they are also very risky, because their customer base may not be ready for it.


Q: Can you be gorgeous and green?

A: This is a very loaded question because it has so many facets. The short answer is you HAVE to be gorgeous and green, or you won’t make it in the marketplace. 


The long answer is that people, including designers and the media, think less in terms of gorgeous and more in terms of what is “accepted” in design and then gorgeous. They are timid when it comes to venturing from the status quo. In short, they lack self-confidence. My best customer is an interior designer or architect who has an exceptional understanding of materials, is confident about their talent, and not afraid to be creative. They understand what I’m doing.


Q: How has your background affected your approach to design?

A: As a child my father was always making and inventing things and he encouraged us to make things. So he taught us all about materials and how to work them. He often talked about resources and how our society is so wasteful.


Q: You studied art and art history instead of design. How has this affected your approach to design?

A: I think my studying art provided an understanding of beauty in terms of materials, texture, line, color, shade, mass and movement. Art theory is more of an ideal, and design is more aligned to the thinking of contemporary culture. So my training would naturally question the narrowness of what is known as “good design” in the built environment.


Q: We hear more and more about “re-purposed” materials. Could you comment on their role in the green movement?

A: I think maybe I need to give you my definition of “re-purposed materials” as I see it in the green movement.  A re-purposed material is one that is either destined for the dump but diverted to a useful purpose. It can also be a material languishing in a warehouse somewhere looking for another use. Re-purposed materials are the ultimate green material because they have a zero carbon footprint and they don’ t have to be reprocessed like most recycled materials. So they do not use additional resources to take on their next life.


So to answer your question, repurposed materials are terrific for the environment. Right now I may be best known for re-purposing seat belts.  I heard about a warehouse the size of a city block full of brand-new, never used car seat belts that were over-runs from the auto industry. They were just gathering dust. As a designer I was struck by their impressive physical properties. Here’s a material that’s strength tested to 7000 pounds. It won’t stretch, sag and hardly fades after years of use. It’s available in hundreds of colors and it wipes clean with a damp cloth. If you’re designing a chair seat, why use urethane foam that breaks down and balls up when you have a material with these qualities going to waste? But you can’t base an entire movement on re-purposing, but it’s one of the most fascinating options we have as designers.


Q: Can you define what you think of as “good design”?

A: Good design is about problem solving in a beautiful and spiritually up-lifting way. It changes with the needs of society and advances in technology. If you follow the patterns of how good design was perceived historically, it has a lot to do with adding additional layers of complexity while maintaining simplicity. For instance, the idea of a house began as a need for shelter. Then layers of complexity were added, like plumbing, electricity, security, communications etc. So the need to strike a balance with nature is simply an additional component of good design.


Much of what we know as “green design” today is simply retrofitting. It is sort of like taking an old house without indoor plumbing and converting a bedroom to a bathroom. What I am trying to communicate with my work is that we have to move beyond retrofitting and understand a new and optimistic vision of “good design”.


Q: ”Eco Modernism” is a term that keeps coming up in conjunction with your work. What does that mean?

A: Eco Modernism is the name I’ve given to the guiding aesthetic sensibility of sustainable design. It includes my experiments in creating a new style for ply-bent furniture. But I certainly do not want the ideas behind eco-modernism to be limited to my own work. If I had to define it, I’d call it the intersection of style and functionality, combined with the most eco effective technologies and materials. If it has an eco modern sensibility, you will be able to see it is different. The result can be as simple as noticing that a chair uses seatbelts instead of fabric and foam cushioning, or cotton or linen webbing. Or it could simply be unusually lightweight but still as strong as something using twice the resources. It is less hard edge than classic modernism and more romantic. To a certain extent it’s like jazz: easier to identify than to pin down. Like earlier design movements that have shifted our values, it reveals a unique approach to materiality. The thing to keep in mind is that Eco Modernism is optimistic. It is the first design philosophy that looks forward to its own consequences instead of looking backwards for justification.


Q: Which is more important: ecological responsibility or good design?

A: They’re equally important. When the designer does a good job it doesn’t have to be a choice between the two.


Q: What do you see as the future of the green movement?

A: Growth, growth and more growth. Some designers and manufacturers will go green because they understand how important it is. Others will go green because they have to. But in an industry where trends come and go, green is a trend that isn’t going away. There’s a whole generation of kids out there who’ve grown up with green values…they’re teaching their parents to recycle, for example. These young people will be in the workforce before most of today’s industry people have retired. I think it’s especially important for today’s designers and manufacturers to be on the right side of history, not just to save the planet but also to protect their own legacy and reputation.


Q: How would you like to be remembered 50 years from now?

A: Ahead of my time.  Right now some people think I’m a little “out there.”  They appreciate my designs and the concepts behind them, but they have trouble visualizing how they can be used. 


Q: If you could tell today’s young designers one thing, what would it be?

A:  Actually it would be several things. First, learn to draw! Our digital culture is so much about cutting and pasting that few are really capable of having creative ideas. Second, to really understand materials, a designer must have a hands on experience to learn how their properties can be used in an original way. Third, truly creative design is not about billing for hours, it is the challenge of transcending mediocrity. To be truly creative in a non-destructive sense serves an ultimate good. It advances the human spirit and solidifies our tenuous claim to being creatures of light.  


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