Home & Design: Design Professionals

Safe Haven

Interior Decorator Tamara Magel Designs Healthy Homes. Just Don't Call Them "Green."
By Sam Wilson - June 3, 2019

Not so long ago, few of us worried about formaldehyde in our furniture or off-gassing sheet rock or the harmful effects of those toxins on our health. Back then, creating a healthy home was a relatively simple affair. We installed good water filters and air purification systems and we checked the house for mold. We bought all-cotton organic bedding. We replaced chlorine bleach with environmentally-safe cleaning products and we convinced our skeptical cleaning woman to adopt environmentally-safe cleaning products, too. (“For the sake of her health.”) We bought organic fruits and vegetables. We didn’t use pesticides on the lawn. The planet was heating up and environmental pollutants were unavoidable, but if we threw enough money at the problem, within our interior walls, we told ourselves, our families would be safe. Or so we believed.

But now we know better. Household toxins are no longer a fringe matter but a front and center concern. Consider, for example, the news that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have reportedly installed a “green” boiler at Frogmore Cottage, their Windsor home, that cost about as much as an entry-level home in the Hamptons. What was more, the couple, who recently delivered their first child, intend to cover the walls of the nursery with vegan paint from the UK-based Organic & Natural Paint Co. In addition to being non-toxic and organic, the paint was infused with pleasant-smelling essential oils. 

Green boilers? Vegan paint? If you’re perplexed, help is at hand. In the design world, an increasing number of decorators have begun to incorporate the principals of healthy design into their practices. Tamara Magel, an East Hampton designer known for her spare, clean-lined interiors, is among them. 

“The green building movement has given people a false sense of security,” says Magel, who is an ambassador for the organization Wellness Within Your Walls. “Green building is mostly to do with emissions and has little bearing on the toxins in our homes.” According to Magel, the same goes for the “green” label on cleaning products, furniture finishes, and even bedding. One of the biggest misconceptions, says Magel, is that “green” is synonymous with non-toxic. “Just because a product advertises itself as having low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain other harmful chemicals.” She notes that many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, and that women may be more prone to suffer their deleterious effects than men.

Magel ticks off the list of potential dangers. Sofa cushions can include flame retardants. Walls can continue to emit VOCs for years after the painters have gathered up their drop cloths. Fabrics, furniture, carpets, and rugs call all harbor potentially dangerous toxins. And don’t get her started on polyurethane fumes. In her own practice, Magel favors natural textiles such as all-wool and natural-fiber rugs. “I like good old-fashioned materials!” she says.

A case in point is the contemporary East Hampton barn with double-height ceilings that she decorated for a big family. The clients wanted interiors that were “modern, clean, and warm,” Magel says. To this end, she used contrasting textures and materials throughout the house. Shearling-covered wood-frame chairs play off against a grey mohair sofa with a mid-century Italian feel and Venetian plaster over the fireplace. Fourteen dining chairs, their backs upholstered in natural-fiber bouclé, are a pleasing foil to a custom-made dining table fashioned from a slab of black walnut. Adding to the array of textures is the open verdant space just beyond the windows. 

“Style-wise, I think of it as ‘understated organic,’” says Magel, who is currently overseeing construction on a home of her own in East Hampton, a project that has made her an authority on the vexed subject of floor finishes. As so many floor treatments hardly qualify as natural, she “may end up going with hemp oil,” she says, a substance that happens to be both non-toxic and vegan. Certainly, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle would approve.

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