“It started out as an experiment, a question,” says Robinson, “Once I decided I wanted to make clean, sustainable furniture, I wanted to prove that women could succeed in manufacturing, and that when they did, work places were healthier, and more supportive. And I wanted to create a company and a process that brought back dignity to a group of forgotten craftsmen-- it’s always been a goal to preserve these techniques, which risk being lost.”Read More
By Estelle Pin
It’s not a factory—that’s the first thing you need to understand about EcoBalanza. There are no machines, none of those loud repetitive industrial noises, there’s no chemical or metallic smell. When you walk into the space at EcoBalanza, there are five craftsmen and women, working together, laughing and smiling together, and creating beautiful works of art, quietly, by hand.
Some pieces are quite large: a bedframe for a king sized bed, fully upholstered, is one of the recently completed works, waiting for some finishing touches. It takes up a large corner of its own, and when it finally passes all of Aimee’s meticulous inspections, it will go to its new home, for some glamorous person in Europe, who likes their headboards 8 feet tall. The piece I fall for during my visit is also a headboard, more curved and romantic, also upholstered, but drastically different in style, and probably half the size. I imagine this client and I have a lot more in common.
Nearby, layers of wool are being stitched together with one long big needle, to make the cushion of a chaise. The fabric for this one is a rich cherry red. I run my hands over seams of finished pieces, awestruck knowing the hours of labor that go into each stage of construction—more so, when I feel the tension inside each frame. These pieces feel sturdy, solid, but soft, welcoming. I sit down in a completed loveseat that waits by the door for packaging, and Aimee raises an eyebrow at me, giving me a moment to soak it all in before asking for my opinion. My positive review leaves her glowing.
It’s clear that for her, it’s a labor of love. Aimee moves through the workshop with an excited hop in her step that keeps her more airborne than grounded, pulling me towards this piece of wool, or that piece of leather, or this fully finished couch. She has me touch everything, feeling the materials that never see the light of day once sandwiched into layers inside fabric. Her eyes catch every detail, and when I reach for a round of wool, she quickly redirects me to another, of higher quality—the one I originally saw has to be returned, it doesn’t meet her standards.
She explains every step of the process to me, showing various stages of construction, and answers every question I can think to ask. The whole time, she’s also switching back and forth to Spanish, as she watches over her crew, and makes minute adjustments to their work.
I excuse myself to explore a bit, though the space isn’t so huge that exploring takes me very far. There are shelves piled high with materials all the way to the ceiling, some 20 feet above us, and every inch of usable space is being put to work in some way or another. I find a pile of vegetable-treated leather in every color you can imagine. It’s softer than I can describe, like passing your hand through ethereal space, and the green is especially brilliant. I notice some frames for pullout couches, Aimee explains later that those come to her pre-made—metalwork is probably the only thing they don’t do here.
Before I leave, Aimee shows me one last thing. She brings it over cradled in two hands; the foot of a couch. It’s only about 4 inches long, hand tooled on a lathe and stained. She hands it to me, like a sacred artifact, and she’s beaming with pride. “Look at this, look at these colors, look how this stain has come out”. And she’s right, it’s beautiful. There are warm tones, cold tones, streaks of lights and darks, more complexities in this one tiny detail than in half of my apartment.
And it’s all like that. Every piece, every component, more varied and beautiful than you can ever really appreciate. What Aimee Robinson does, every day. In a small workshop in the heart of south Seattle, is create art in the form of furniture. At EcoBalanza, every choice is intentional, every detail attended to, and every need is considered.
Estelle Pin is a Bellingham-based writer who recently toured the EcoBalanza workshop with owner, Aimee Robinson.
I have a special needs child with a medical condition that keeps him on the sofa much of the day. The family sofa is more than just a place to sit, it's his security blanket.
As a mom, my paramount concern is his comfort and safety. When the time came to buy a new sofa, I wanted to make a change and get an organic one to prevent exposing him to toxins or chemicals found in regular sofas.
I did a lot of research on the internet, but there wasn't clear information to help me understand what the options were. I still had a lot of questions. Are all the components truly organic? How do you read between the lines when a company promotes itself as using “all natural” materials? Are they in control of the sourcing of all their materials?
When I found EcoBalanza, it was different. They explained all the filling options - like latex, wool and kapok as well as the different fabrics, and dyes. I was also reassured that they were in complete control of their supply chain, from start to finish. Scott spent a lot of time with me on the phone. He understood our long list of requirements, including my hesitation to make an expensive purchase, sight unseen. He asked many questions, sent pictures and facilitated the process of translating our specific needs into a custom built, beautiful and lasting piece.
Turn around time was shorter than I expected. It was shipped from Seattle to a local white glove delivery service. They brought it to my house, unwrapped the frame and cushions and carted away the packaging.
So today, the couch stands in my home, and it's clearly not a piece that was rolled off a factory floor. The design was specifically tailored for my son. They made the couch deeper, with a higher back and longer zippers to make the cushions easier to clean. The extra filling makes it softer and very comfortable. It's modern, stylish, well built and best of all, has no chemical smell.
I made an investment, it’s for my son, it’s for my peace of mind. It’s totally worth it.
Did you know?
Tumor-causing flame retardant treatments: Polyurethane foam burns fast and hot,[iv] which is why it’s treated with flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), Melamine,[v] chlorinated tris (TDCPP) and chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs).[vi] TDCPP negatively impacts fertility and tumor growth rates kidneys[vii] of which 8,000 tons are used every year.[viii] High-level exposure to melamine causes acute renal failure, urinary stone formation, and crystalluria.[ix]
In her blog, Christie's Non-Toxic Lifestyle, Christy Begien share some great insights into the impact of living with Volatile Organic Compounds. Visit her blog regularly to see how you can learn from her experiences.
VOC? What does that mean? The Minnesota Department of Health states that Volatile Organic Compounds are “a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. While most people can smell high levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odor. Odor does NOT indicate the level of risk from inhalation of this group of chemicals.”
I’ll bet most of you have heard of formaldehyde. It’s a VOC and considered volatile because it emits a gas at room temperature. As it warms up, more of the chemical off-gasses into a room. (Off-gassing is the natural evaporation of chemicals.) The top three VOC offenders in our home? Carpeting, paint, and furniture and upholstery; all can carry VOCs, such as formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene, just to name a few.
The Washington Toxics Coalition is a great resource for understanding the importance of paying attention to what is inside your furniture. Here are a few healthy tips to guide you:
If you’re not sure whether a piece of furniture contains toxic flame retardants, ask the manufacturer. If they are not able to tell you, consider an alternative.
If you already own furniture that may contain toxic flame retardants, cover and seal any rips in upholstery and replace old items where foam is exposed, loose, and crumbling.
Consider replacing furniture made of manufactured wood that contains formaldehyde-based glues. You can also apply a sealant, to contain the formaldehyde.
The use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture is a classic example of a stupid use of a chemical: they are ineffective in preventing furniture fires and are linked to serious health effects. In fact, the chemicals can make fires more toxic by forming deadly gases and soot -- real killers in most fires. Unfortunately, flame retardants surround us; they are in everything, from our curtains and carpet to our couches and other upholstered furniture.
For decades, an ineffective flammability standard, California's TB 117, has resulted in the foam inside our sofas, recliners, and love seats being saturated with pounds of toxic flame retardants. Though California has been the only state that required furniture to meet the standard, TB 117 became a default standard for furniture sold across the country. A recent study found that most couches in the United States contain at least one flame retardant chemical, whether or not they carry a TB 117 label.