Furniture guru Topher Paterno on eco-concious design | Home Front

May 10, 2012

Topher Paterno owns Pazzo Verde, an environmentally concious furniture design firm and consultation company in the District. In this week's Local Living, he chats with columnist Terri Sapienza about his recent move from Los Angeles to Washington and the biggest misconceptions about green living.

Every week, Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza help you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? They're happy to whip out their paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself (or call-in-a-pro) advice. They can even help you cope with the eternal pets vs. furniture battle. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. They invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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Hi, everyone. Thanks for being here. We're excited to have eco-conscious furniture designer Topher Paterno with us today. If you haven't read the profile of Topher in today's Local Living, check it out here. And if you have any pressing design questions (green or not), the three of us are ready to answer them, so let's get started.  

I'm about to work with an interior designer for the first time to do a living room and family room, and I don't have unlimited funds, if I request to go green design, I'm concerned that the cost will eat up so much of my budget that I'll not be able to complete furnishing my room. Are there particular items (i.e. rugs, etc) that will have the biggest impact - any recommendations on how to be green yet stay within budget?

Great question...Green does not mean expensive...tha'ts one of the biggest misconceptions out there.  here's one of my secrets. Start your search on the internet.  Instead of typing in the search bar just "rugs" try typing "eco"  or "eco friendly " in front of whatever you're searching for...for example eco rugs will yield so many options as well as any other home furnishings.  So many companies now recognize the importance of offering green products that you WILL find something eco within your budget.  Also, think about thrift stores and flea markets.  You stop things from going to the landfill and you might find that something really special.

I have a rental property and I am getting ready to paint the second bedroom. It is a small room, 10x16, and gets a TON of natural light. My new tenants have a one year old boy who will occupy this room. I was thinking of painting the room yellow but don't want it to be too bright; I don't want something that could possibly disturb the baby's sleep. Do you have any pale yellow suggestions? I am open to other color ideas too but the master is a green and I don't want both rooms the same color. Thanks!!!

Bioshield, Safecoat and American Clay make some really nice clay paints...there colors are amazing and offer health benefits as well...they are a little higher in price,  but there is also Benjamin Moore Natura might want to look at Sundance Yellow...or Delightful Yellow...not too bright.  What you really want to look for is No VOC content...and/or Non Toxic.

What can I use for mildew smell in a basement?  

Do you have a dehumidifier? Read this.

Hi! This summer I will begin leasing an apartment that has an entire mirrored wall in the 'dining area' of our small living space. Since I'm a renter, I can't take down the mirror panels, but I'm hoping you can help me decorate with it in mind. I'm imagining a taller, open credenza (something like this) with items on top, or perhaps lean a large piece of art on top of the credenza to shield some of the mirrorred wall. I'd love to hear what you would do! Thanks!

I think I would take advantage of the mirrored wall and hang wallpaper on the other three walls. The mirror will reflect the paper on the opposite wall, and the entire room will look papered at a fraction of the cost.  Sherwin-Williams and Anthropologie  sell easily removable wallpaper, so you can take it down when your lease is up.

Help! I live in a basement apartment and the bedroom is painfully dark. I have serious problems getting up in the morning because I'm used to more light. What can I do? Anything? I've adjusted sleep schedules, added lighting but I still feel groggy and out of whack. Any advice is appreciated -- I'll paint it glow in the dark if I have to.

Are your walls already white or another very light color? What kind of lighting do you have? What color is your bedding? I need more specifics...

Where can I get upholstered furniture without all the harmful fires-retardant chemicals that are used on the foam?

The Sofa Co has rolled out a competely green line. You can do a internet search using the ECO- "XXXX" method.  Type "eco" in front of the word for whatever you are looking for...tons of stuff comes up.  Everyone from super-high-end places through to Target is offering eco-friendly furniture.  Cisco Home is another place I'd look. They have a locaton in NYC.  For closer to DC type ECO FURNITURE DC.  a lot comes up. 

Hi design gurus! I've heard window treatments are typically the eyesore of poorly designed homes. Are there rules of thumb for picking these out? How to judge what is trendy and what is timeless? All the way to the floor or just to the window sill? I'm clueless....

That is really true. The good news is that these days, many homes are showing a cleaner look - not fabric - but things like wood blinds, shutters or something like Roman shades or natural fiber shades. You don't always have to have fabric flowing at the windows. A timeless look in curtains is something simple that goes to the floor, but that isn't always necessary.

Hi, Topher! I am renovating my house and am on my 3rd full dumpster. I am also in need of some furniture and perhaps some art. My backyard is very inspiring woods and water. Are you available to take on a new client?

Yes of course.  Contact me through the Web site, and we can get moving.  I like to visit the client's home and get a feel for what they live like, what's important to them, etc. ...then I design around that. Soooo, talk soon, yes?

I'm looking for a new sofa, which has been far more difficult than I imagined. My criteria are clean lines, fairly small (less than 80 inches), fabric rather than leather and around $1000. Do you have any suggestions on where to look? I've hit Haverty's, La-z-boy, Macys, Bassett and a few others and I'm beginning to think I'm searching for an unicorn. I live in Greenbelt and work in Rockville, but am willing to go to NoVa/B-more.

I would try some of those places on 14th Street NW.   Vastu is a good eco-friendly furnishings store.  Also don't discount the thrift store buys.  You could find just what you're looking for cheap and spend the rest on a reupholstery job.

My boyfriend and I just moved in together. Well, I moved in to his 4 bedroom house from my one bedroom apt. He's very open to rearranging things and putting some of my stuff in the living areas, but we don't know where to start. Right now, my furniture is in the guest room and den. It's fine... but it looks like we just re-created my apartment in the upstairs of his house. Any ideas on where to begin??

Instead of recreating the arrangements in your apartment, try mixing some of your pieces in with his and his with yours. Just move things around and leave them in place for a few days before you decided whether you like it or not. Sometimes you are so used to seeing a piece of furniture in one place that it's difficult to imagine it looking good someplace else until you actually try it. A mix of your furniture and his furniture will be a nice reflection of your personalities and how they work together as a couple. Just try moving a few pieces over the weekend and see what you think. Start there.


I'm looking for a mission style sofa. The hitch is it is for a small living room, and most of the pieces I've seen are huge. Any recommendations for furniture built BEFORE the McMansion era took over?

Have you tried Room & Board? They have an amazing showroom on 14th Street.  You could also try Vastu while you're in the neighborhood; they specialize in small spaces and can customize furniture to fit your needs.

The chatter with the mirrored wall could hang some sheer curtains or fabric in front of it, to cut down on the reflection. He/she could attach a lightweight curtain rod to the ceiling, rather than drill into the mirrors if they completely cover the wall.

They could, but my guess is that whoever installed the wall of mirrors did so because it's a small room and the mirrors make it look much larger and more spacious. Hanging a wall of curtains would take away this effect and would make a small room feel more cramped.

Eco-concious furniture seems to appeal to a niche market among a relatively small demographic. How do you see it achieving a wider audience? Will green design ever represent a large percentage of products at big-box retailers like Target and WalMart? - lk

Great question! There is a large divide between 'greenies' and non greenies...but it is getting smaller.  Big box stores are seeing a demand for green products, and they are offering them. This means more people see this around them as good design options and affordable options. I do feel it is a multi-pronged approach with some sort of responsibility falling on gov't regulation and corporate responsibility.  We are all responsible for what we put out in this world...that means those who sell it and those who buy it.

I'm a grad student here in DC - architecture and sustainable design - and my thesis topic revolves around materials, specifically the benefits of regional sourcing. I'd love to hear more about what you think are the biggest hurdles in getting truly sustainable and regional products to clients?

The biggest hurdle is letting people know what sustinable is.  There are so many levels.  Is it within the 500 mi radius, what's it made from? If they are informed they can weave through the 'greenwashing' (false info about the green aspects of a product) . 

Just to clarify for everyone, Topher's eco-design company is Pazzo Verde,

Good morning: I have a black leather Eames lounge chair in my home office, and a vintage teak desk. I'm having difficulty choosing a color for the walls - what would look nice with this type of furniture?

I think a Kennebunkport Green by Benjamin Moore or Benjamin Moore's Seapearl.

'Tis the season for graduations and weddings. I just got some great stuff at Weschler's (Royal Copenhagen bowl, Rosenthal vases, Wedgwood box) and now need to find equally lovely gift boxes for them. Any ideas?

Good for you! Yes! I have bought lovely sturdy white gift boxes at The Container Store. They have many sizes to choose from. Stock up on tissue paper too.

A friend had this situation and was dubious about the mirrored wall but ended up really liking it. I would also suggest some large, tall plants to help block some of the mirror. (Another "green" solution!)

Thanks. Great idea.

Good morning! As a result of a school project, my son has collected about 50 postcards from different US locations. I'd like to think of a creative way to display them. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks!

The beauty of postcards is not only on the front...the written words on the back are also part of the package and should be able to be seen also...A couple of them together somehow...wire, string, little alligator clips.  You can hang them all in a few lines from the ceiling, rows and rows next to each other close to the wall.  That way you can see both sides whenever you want...alligator clips would allow them to be removed individually. Another would be to hang painted metal sheeting or paint the wall with a magnetic paint.  The metal in the paint will hold a magnet.  you can arrange them all over the painted surface with small, strong, rare earth magnets and still access them. 

For the chatter who is looking for gift boxes, some of my favorites places to find them are Smock and the Paper Source.

Have you tried one of those alarm clocks that are supposed to mimic daylight? I think some of them slowly increase the light. Might make waking up easier. I feel your pain, I once lived in a basement apartment, and my bedroom had absolutely no windows. It was hard to tell whether it was day or night sometimes!

This is an interesting solution. I've never heard of these clocks. Thanks!

The original trim around the windows and doors of our 1925 DC rowhouse is in bad shape from multiple coats of paint, dings etc. Any advice on what makes the most sense to make the trim look nicer? I would imagine it's prohibitively expensive to "restore" it but am not sure about getting rid of it since it's original to the house.

This could be a good question for our How To home-improvement column. I'll send this along to Jeanne Huber to see if she might answer in an upcoming issue of Local Living. Meanwhile, anyone else have ideas for this chatter?

I would try the soy-based paint stripper I used on my floors...see  my Web site. It's a gel that sits, and then you come back a little later and with a plastic scraper just lift the bubbling paint right off.  I got it from Amicus Green in Kensington. Test it in a little corner that you can't really see first.  See how easy the paint comes off so you can get to a smooth doesn't need to be spotless, just smooth.  You want to remove the buildup so when you do repaint the windows will operate smoothly.  It could be a labor of love, one window at a time. Or a job for a contractor.  Anyone can use this Soy-Gel product.

A friend with a similar wall used press-on window dividers, so the wall looks more like a window and breaks up reflections, but still provides the extra light and airiness. Doesn't look bad and didn't cost that much.

I'm having a difficult time imagining this, but I'll pass it along anyway. I think the best thing to do with a mirrored wall in a rental is to embrace it. If you spend a lot of time and effort trying to mask it or divert attention away from it, it will probably have the reverse effect.

We have a marble vanity top in our completely remodeled master bath. It has been sealed, but I still notice water marks and marks from my soap dispenser. Is there a specific sealer I could try? Or, are there any types of trays or containers that could sit on the marble and not hold moisture/leave rings? Right now everything is sitting on top of washclothes which is functional but doesn't look that great. Thanks!

I would speak to the company that sold you the marble about what other sealer they would suggest. As for attractive ways to contain moisture - West Elm has small trays that would work - you could put soap dispensers in them. Also check The Container Store and CB2 for small trays or dishes that would work.

I live in a typical, small 2 bedroom cape cod. I'm considering having some cabinetry built in my dining room and living room. I am having difficulty getting the funcitional pieces I need that are scaled right to the size of the rooms that work with the existing windows, radiators, and fireplace. So think built-ins a la Sear Roebuck. I want them to look like furniture, not kitchen cabinetry that is in another room. How would I find someone to help me design and build something like this?

Contact me through my website.  I have met a few great furniture makers in the area that can get you what you need.  If you are not in the area, ask around for custom furniture guys.  If you see a custom piece tht looks like what you want...ask the owner who made it.  I do this all the time, usually in non-chain restaraunts, they have lots of custom build in creations that catch my eye and usually they use local makers.  Heck, its what I do for a living...

Hi! I'm hoping for some ideas for master bath paint color. Small room, black and white floor, grey countertop, "blush" fixtures - actually a pale not-too-pink color. Master bedroom is medium-strength sort-of-orange-sherbet color (BM "Apricot Chiffon" - better than it sounds!) Some sort of taupe? I have no idea what direction to go with this... Bonus points for BM or SW. P.S. my kitchen is palladium blue and I ADORE it - may even do the guest bath that color! Thanks!

I think White Dove by Benjamin Moore would be nice.

I saw three at Random Harvest in Old Town a few weeks ago. They will call you if they get one in, too. We got ours (a settee) at Mclean Furniture Gallery. We picked the wood and fabric and they custom made it. It was not expensive and it is gorgeous.

Great tips. Thanks for sharing.

I think it's very sweet of the landlord to think of his tenants when painting, but yellow is a color that is probably not going to please, especially in a bright room. I'd go for a light blue instead.

For the record, my little guy's nursery is yellow and we are perfectly fine with it. Everyone has different taste, of course!

There are many places on Gen. Washington Drive (off Edsall) in Fairfax right next to Alexandria. Creative Classics and Warehouse Showrooms both have exactly what you are lookig for. We just got a wardrobe at WS, but were tempted by the one at CC. You do not pay for fancy showroom or location.

more suggestions for small sofas...

Are all green products biodegradable? What is the footprint of green products after they are discarded?

No, products that are bioderadable are green but not all green products are biodegradable.  Green could mean any number of things, that's what makes it such a tricky area.  Products rated by Energy Star, or GreenSeal, etc are green too. Go to their Web sites for listings...Google Green-whatever: appliances, home furnishings and other products -- you'd be amazed!

I have a bone china perfume tray (about 6 x 9 inch oval) which is very useful and also a Chinese saucer I used as a soap dish. Have fun looking around town for something similar.

Terrific. Thanks.

I would suggest placing shelves or a bookcase (without a back) in front of the mirrored wall. That way you can show off any art objects or fun knickknacks to their full advantage. If the renter does go with a credenza, lamps on that credenza should reflect beautifully into the room.

Good thoughts. Thanks.

I understand they lost their lease and are closing -- have you all been, I'm wondering if it's worth going to check out their closing sale, since it's a bit of a drive for me.


How do you avoid "greenwashing," i.e., things that aren't really eco-friendly but pretend they are? For example: a rayon T-shirt that might technically start as bamboo but only through an environmentally harmful process. Are there any standards to look for?

It's hard.  You have to educate yourself little by little. 

That's all the time we have today. Thanks for Topher Paterno for being here and for addressing all the green living questions. If he didn't get to yours, be sure to check out his Web site and blog and you might find the answer there. Thanks for tuning in. Chat with you next week.

In This Chat
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post's Local Living section.
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Topher Paterno
After living in Venice, Calif., for nearly 18 years, Topher Paterno relocated to the District last May. Here, he owns an environmentally friendly furniture design firm and consultation company called Pazzo Verde. He is a certified LEED Green Associate and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Furniture Design from Rhode Island School of Design.
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