Thanks to her globally-inspired aesthetic and bold, tailored interiors, Laura Hodges has been honored by the likes of House Beautiful and Traditional Home magazines as a rising star in interior design. But the Baltimore/Washington, D.C.-based designer is just as celebrated for another aspect of her work: her ability to seamlessly merge style with sustainability. In this Q&A, the LEED and GREEN Accredited Professional gives us a look at what inspires her, her design process, and insight on how she creates naturally beautiful homes—and how you can, too.
YOU’RE AN AVID TRAVELER—30-PLUS COUNTRIES AND COUNTING. HOW HAS THIS INFLUENCED YOU WORK?
It’s given me a broader knowledge of design and architecture in general. I went school for interior design, so I did study different architecture from around the world. But it’s much different when you see things in person. Being immersed in other people’s cultures—whether you’re going to markets in Marrakesh, or seeing different textiles in Peru, or watching the process of rug-weaving in Thailand and understanding first-hand how insanely meticulous and time-consuming it all is—gives you a real appreciation for artisans and their work.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO FOCUS ON SUSTAINABLE INTERIOR DESIGN?
I’ve always been very interested in being sustainable. I didn’t necessarily give it that name, but for me, it was important to throw away as little as possible, use minimal packaging, and recycle. It was natural for me to make sure what we do with interior design is responsible. I wanted to ensure the choices we make are thoughtful—that we’re not just buying things and thinking “Well, we’ll get rid of that in five years; it’s not a big deal.” We try to think about things in the long-term and that use responsibly sourced materials like woods and fabrics. And the other side of it are the health aspects. Since sustainability also ties into indoor air quality, we make sure there are no toxins in the finishes and materials we use. Across the board, sustainability has been a natural progression for me and I love introducing it my clients.
WHAT TIPS CAN YOU GIVE ON CREATING A MORE SUSTAINABLE HOME? WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE KEEP IN MIND AS THEY STRIVE TO MAKE THEIR OWN SPACES MORE ECO?
Even if you’re just painting a room, I would look for no- or low-VOC paints and finishes. And if you’re working with a contractor, you can talk to them about what their day-to-day processes are like. For example, if you’re getting a new kitchen and they’re taking out all your cabinetry, can you donate that cabinetry instead of it ending up in landfill? Can your countertops be reused for an outdoor kitchen? Can your countertops go to a salvage yard instead of being thrown away? Can you find new furniture from vintage and antique sources like Chairish or 1stDibs before you buy things that are newly made?
Then there are small things you can do in your day-to-day life, such as trying not to use anything disposable like paper towels or paper plates. You can use washable versions instead. I think especially right now, it’s hard; because of COVID, people want everything to be very clean and sanitary, so there’s an interest in disposable items again. But soap gets rid of it, so washing things is very, very safe. So we are still encouraging people to think in terms of longevity and in things that can biodegrade or be reused instead of being thrown away.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES YOU FACE WHEN DESIGNING SUSTAINABLE INTERIORS?
We are designers—we are not makers—so the biggest challenge is having access to materials and furniture that are sustainable. I don’t think it’s necessarily top of mind for a lot of people, so there’s not a huge market for it right now. So, until sustainability becomes something that more people consider when they’re purchasing, it remains difficult for designers to find those sources. And so we try to talk about it [to clients] all the time so that the people who are making the materials—the furniture makers—will see that sustainability is something that would be in demand.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISH MORE PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY IN DESIGN?
It’s one of those things that’s like, “Eat your vegetables; you have to be healthy.” Sometimes people think it’s not going to be fun, or it’s not going to be as pretty, or it’s not going to be as luxurious or indulgent. Sometimes you just want to have a really beautiful room and not really worry about the impact of that room. I equate it to going to a fancy restaurant and having a wonderful meal. You don’t necessarily wonder about if it’s healthy for you. You may wonder where everything comes from—Is it organic? Is the seafood responsibly fished?—that sort of thing. But if it’s a really lovely meal, you don’t worry much about the health benefits of every single thing you’re eating. So, we try to tell people that sustainable design doesn’t have to be “everything made of recycled and reclaimed wood.” I think that’s what people tend to imagine when it comes to sustainable interiors. They’re thinking about all-natural woods and everything being sort of “crunchy”…and it doesn’t have to be that at all.
Realistically, if you get a piece of reclaimed wood, you can sand it down and stain it with a no-VOC stain and it’s going to still be very stylish. It’s going to be sustainable, but stylish. That’s why shopping vintage and shopping antiques is innately sustainable—you’re not buying something new.
So a sustainable interior doesn’t necessarily have to mean that everything is made of reclaimed materials or that everything is made of biodegradable materials. It’s really about knowing what you’re buying; knowing where you’re buying it from; being thoughtful about where you’re buying it from; and making sure the people who are making it for you are being paid properly, being looked after properly, and are not working in bad conditions. All of that plays into sustainability as well.
It’s also about being a little more thoughtful and trying not to go into “fast” home furnishings—which is like “fast fashion,” where the thought of “I’ll just buy a new one in a few years” creates a disposable mind set. You can do better than that because you can buy something that’s meant to last longer and doesn’t have to be brand new. I always tell people: If it’s not in your budget to buy something that’s beautifully made and valued at what it’s worth, go for vintage. At estate sales and secondhand shops, you can still get good quality stuff.
WHEN YOU ARE PREPARING TO DESIGN A SPACE, WHAT MUST-HAVES SHOW UP AGAIN AND AGAIN?
We usually start a space by looking at things we can use that already exist. We begin with vintage pieces and see if the client has anything we can keep using. We also talk about what we can recycle and what we can give away or donate so that we’re not throwing anything out.
We also make sure the materials and finishes we choose are zero-VOC. For example, Benjamin Moore has really great paint in general—their colors are fantastic—and they have the Natura line of paints, which is zero-VOC.
And then we always start with vintage rugs. We stay away from new rugs and carpeting because they are usually very hard to recycle, tend to be thrown away, and are pretty toxic as they have stain treatments in them (etc.), and don’t really break down. We then add rug pads—which are typically made from recycled materials, which is great—but we try to get ones made from materials that will biodegrade.
IF SOMEONE ISN’T READY TO COMPLETELY OVERHAUL THEIR SPACE IN A SUSTAINABLE WAY, WHAT ARE SOME EASY, STYLISH, AND ECO UPGRADES YOU’D RECOMMEND?
One of the easiest things to do is to change your lightbulbs (once they go out, of course!). Don’t replace them with incandescent bulbs—they don’t last very long and you can’t do anything with them. LED lightbulbs are fantastic. You can get just the right color temperature for your space. (We usually choose anywhere from 2700 to 3000 Kelvins.) It’s easy, it makes a big difference, and the bulbs last forever.
Other small things are shopping vintage for small accessory upgrades. We love to style a bookshelf with old books. And bringing in vintage pieces always adds another layer of character and personality to a space so it’s not all brand new.
Make sure everything in your kitchen is a little bit more sustainable, too. Look for reusable paper towels or dishwashing soap that comes as a block of soap rather than in a plastic container. It’s actually more stylish, too…you won’t have a plastic container with a brand on it. We also encourage bamboo-handled and biodegradable dish brushes with removable and replaceable bristles. It looks much prettier in your kitchen! And be sure to do the same thing in the bathroom: using blocks of soap instead of liquid soap is much more sustainable.
WHAT SORT OF HOME-DESIGN TRENDS ARE YOU EXPECTING IN 2021?
One of the big things is a Zoom space! Since everybody’s Zooming from home right now, we’re doing a lot of bookshelves for people. We’re also designing spaces that are usable in multiple ways—a dining room may also be an office or a homeschooling location, for example. Functionality is going to be big for 2021. It’s not necessarily going to be all about beautiful spaces that nobody uses or that are only used for entertaining. It’s really going to be about making sure your home fits you and your lifestyle.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE A “BEAUTIFUL HOME”?
For me, a beautiful home reflects the people who live there. We’ve all certainly seen beautiful homes that lack personality. But it becomes so much more beautiful when there are layers of different pieces that speak to the person who lives there.
You could layer in different elements that define who you are: If you’re traveled a lot, items you’ve collected while you’ve been traveling; if your career is a passion for you, things that relate to that; family photos; travel photos. Rather than having a room that is beautiful for its own sake, it’s more interesting if there are things that you would not find anywhere else—that you’d only find in your home. And it can make it more beautiful for you, too. Because you’re interested in looking at all these pieces…and it’s great to be able to reflect on your life as you’re living in your home.
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