ecofabulous Founder on the 3 R’s: “Reuse, Repurpose, and Restyle”

ecofabulous reclaimed space interior At this year’s Dwell on Design, held last month in Los Angeles, Zem Joaquin shared her unique vision on the concept of garbage. Ever since Jack Johnson turned “reduce, reuse, recycle” into something you hum on your drive into work or school, people have been rethinking the notion of trash…and some more than others.

The go-to eco-expert and founder of ecofabulous, Joaquin and her team applied their very compelling approach in the Reclaimed Space Showhouse. Custom designed and built by Austin-based prefab builder, Reclaimed Space, the 400 square foot home’s interior was designed using high quality vintage, repurposed, and restyled items found on eBay and local antique stores.

Joaquin sat down at the event to field some questions on her innovative and stylish design.

QUESTION: I love what ecofabulous did with the interior space of the showhouse. Can you tell us about your “eco” design approach?

Zem Joaquin: I think of eco-design as excellent aesthetics and functionality that is just smarter. It’s important to evaluate your space to determine what you have and what you need—always look at what you own and can be re-purposed first! The next step is to look for vintage items in your local area (the closer to home, the less fuel burned to ship it). If you cannot find it locally, cast a wider net, but make sure that any “new” pieces you acquire are healthy for you and the planet (e.g., avoid VOC’s and new exotic woods).

QUESTION: Did you have a specific approach or style for the reclaimed space house?

ZJ: The Reclaimed Space showhouse was the perfect project to bring to life my “eco-design” approach. Because the house is made from 90% reclaimed materials—the majority of the wood and metal used is 80 to 100 years old—we wanted the interiors to echo that story. With building construction and demolition waste making up about 40% of our solid waste (EPA), we focused on choosing pieces that otherwise might have been sent to the landfill. Our design mantra for the project was “reuse, repurpose, restyle!”

A few examples: The Vetrazzo countertops are comprised of 85% recycled content; all of the glass was taken from demolition construction waste (glass doors and windows). The Caroma toilet uses water from hand washing for flushing (gray water is recycled water). Much of the furniture came from eBay—one of my personal favorite design resources—or local antique shops. We even used my grandmother’s heirloom couch, which Ekla Home recovered in gray organic wool with orange piping from recycled PET bottles, filled with natural latex.

We focused on using convertible pieces to maximize flexibility of the 400 square foot. living space. Both the couch and the kitchen island were on rollers so you could quickly flip up the Murphy bed and rearrange the pieces for entertaining.

QUESTION: What is your “method” when using reclaimed items…what do you look for?

ZJ: I look for things that need minimal rehabilitation. But if I need to re-upholster or paint then I make sure I’ve evaluated my eco options. You can have a lot of fun with it. I start with colors, an era or even an animal that inspires me. I have a list of my favorite flea markets, thrift stores and vintage shops in my region. Even when shopping online you can purchase locally. There’s a free, easy-to-use eBay site, Kijiji, that allows you to search local classifieds by area—it always comes up with great antique resources.

If I score a piece that requires freshening up, I select materials that are healthiest for my family and the environment. Biodegradable latex (from the rubber tree) or organic cotton and wool make much better fills than their toxic, petroleum-based foam counterpart. Organic cotton, wool, hemp and linen fabrics are great re-covering options, but now there are also numerous colorful and durable textiles made from recycled PET bottles or recycled polyester to choose from as well. When addressing distressed wood, make sure to look for non or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, finishes and adhesives. That way your air will be as beautiful as the furniture!

QUESTION: How has the vintage trend evolved and how is it affecting the design community? Supply chains, etc? What are some of the emerging trends & businesses that are developing because of this market?

ZJ: Though more traditional antiquarians are very strict about eras, much of the design community has broadened the concept of vintage. I think it is important to acknowledge the designers that create movement or define a style, but not let that constrain your personal aesthetic. The trend of covering ornate Victorian seating with bold, unexpected fabrics has paved the way for personal license. The challenging economy and awareness about the limit of natural resources has led to an uptake of reuse, which I find exciting. Since so much of reused items require shipping, companies like eBay,, and the US Postal Service are continuing to address wasteful packaging… you will see more changes in that area. Hopefully people will become more comfortable with repurposed boxes!

Photo credit: Douglas Hill

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