Kenneth Brown looks to the past and sees inspiration for the future of eco-friendly design. "I always go back to the mid-century architects who did the Case Study Houses out in California," says the Los Angeles-based interior designer and star of HGTV's reDesign series.
The Case Study Houses were an experiment launched by Art & Architecture magazine, which recruited the era's leading architects to design and build efficient model homes for the families of returning World War II soldiers. Using local materials crafted by local artisans, the resulting homes were, Brown explains, "the right size for the people living in them."
They were a sensation at the time and remain a model for Brown, who is something of a sensation himself. Thinking on a local scale, he has established a career as one of the hottest designers in the U.S. and built an impressive roster of residential and business clients as an advocate for social responsibility, smaller kitchens, greater comfort and eco-sensitivity in design. He is scheduled to deliver the keynote during Isthmus' Green Day expo on April 26 at Monona Terrace.
On the phone from L.A. after participating in a pre-dawn segment for Martha Stewart Living Radio, Brown says he intends to focus his address on the notion "that green goes beyond any kind of trend. Green doesn't have to look any certain way."
Green and eco-sensitive are the sorts of words that have become slippery as they've gained currency, he continues. Like the "organic" label, green, in particular, is vulnerable to exploitation. "Right now we're going through something I call greenwashing," he cautions, "and people are slapping a green label on everything."
So too eco-friendly design. His definition? "I think eco-friendly design is defined by the overall lifespan of the products that you're using," Brown says. Shipping distances also factor into the definition, he adds, questioning whether the most sustainable materials can be considered eco-friendly or green if they're shipped thousands of miles from source to market.
This viewpoint "goes back to growing up in Baton Rouge," Brown says. "Everything in my parents' house was local." The products and furnishings in their home were produced from local materials by local people.
Growing appreciation for the significance of shorter supply lines is, Brown suggests, driven by "people's social responsibility and awareness. It started as a trend," he adds. But the trend caught enough people's attention, and held it long enough to open their hearts and minds to its inherent value in the context of green ethics.
Eco-friendly design is also in ascendance, Brown adds, noting the widespread perception 10 years ago that such designs "had to look like granola and Birkenstocks and be very bland." If there was ever any basis for this belief, he continues, the materials and color palettes with which he works refute it. "It's now my responsibility to shed light on eco-friendly design," he explains. "How it can improve my clients' lives and health, and their children's health."
He cites budget limitations as one of the biggest obstacles to good eco-friendly design. His own business is often unfettered by these considerations, he allows, because "I'm dealing with clients who might have a bigger budget than most."
But there is also the obstacle posed by this conundrum: Interior design has traditionally relied on the consumption of products ranging from paint, wallpaper, textiles and woods to furnishings, appliances, lights and other fixtures to revise rooms and other spaces in ways that facilitate greater function and comfort. How can this be reconciled with eco-sensitivity?
"The biggest challenge my industry is facing right now is how to help people make choices that are good for them and for the environment," Brown acknowledges. "I think it all goes back to doing your homework and learning about the lifespan of the product."
As an example of this - and his contention that "green design doesn't have to look like granola and sandals" - he cites his own recent quest for chandeliers with which to illuminate his new abode. The images posted to his online journal (KennethBrownDesign.com). suggest the chandeliers will be centerpieces for decades to come.
Brown took his design degree at LSU, then studied industrial and interior design for one more year at England's Manchester Metropolitan University. His travels on the European continent opened his eyes to the rich advantages of simplicity. "They've always been more responsible than we have," Brown says of Europeans. Part of this can be explained by cultural differences enforced by the realities of living in older cities with narrower streets and more developed pedestrian infrastructures.
"A lot of them live modestly," he continues. "They're not afraid to take public transportation." Europe's human scale registered with him in much the same way that the simple comforts of the Case Study Houses did. So did the simple elegance of designs he sees in the black-and-white movies he loves from 1930s and 1940s - near in vintage to his favorite design era, the 1950s.
All of these influences converge in Brown's work today, but images from his portfolio imply something more than the creative impulse at work. Something bordering on an almost spiritual quality. "I find that that is a big part of my work with clients," he agrees. It derives in part from the Louisiana landscape of his youth. "Louisiana is everywhere in my work," he explains. "It's in every color palette I've ever used. The way the light hits the moss and the trees."
He continues to draw on "everything I absorbed growing up," he adds, though this state of mind is now augmented by the sensibilities of the state he now calls home. "California has a lifestyle that keeps things pared down and relaxed," he says, summarizing its appeal. He has built his reputation on designs that fuse the warm foliated comforts of his Southern youth with the clean lines and clear coastal light of Southern California. The results are contemporary, but acknowledge the simple comforts of design traditions from the mid-20th century.
If his reputation precedes him to Madison, the reverse is also true. He's heard about the city's cultural and artistic vitality, and admits to more than a little anticipation as he approaches his first visit to Wisconsin's capital. "I am," Brown says, "very excited to go."