Traditional and green

Making customer furniture with sustainable materials.

December 21, 2012   by Rebecca Reid

Louis Interiors is building its environmental credentials by carefully managing its carbon and waste output.

Nestled in an industrial park in northern Toronto is a small manufacturer of fine custom furniture. On any given day, interior designers from around the world call on it to produce unique designs that will please wealthy patrons at destinations such as the Trump International Hotel in Toronto and the St. Regis in Mexico City.

It’s quite a feat for a company of 40 employees. Yet there’s more to the story at Louis Interiors Inc. Over the years, the family run business has diversified its offerings and customer base while building solid environmental programs.

Susie Muller, granddaughter of company president and founder Louis Muller, says the company has always tried to be environmentally friendly, initially by ensuring they generate as little waste as possible.

“We’re always searching out organizations that could reuse our waste.”

If any leftover fabric and off-cut wood can’t be used in the manufacturing process, it’s sent to a local manufacturer of puppets and crafts – along with the sawdust generated at the shop.

But it has really been the past four to five years that the company has made a move towards sustainable materials – a decision made by conscience not customer demand.

“Our thought is, if it’s environmentally-friendly, economically feasible and doesn’t impact the quality of the furniture, why wouldn’t we do it?”
Furniture is hand-made using traditional European methods Louis learned during his childhood in Hungary (she defines traditional European as “good looking and long lasting”).

As a boy, he was taught the family trade – tying rope – and as a young man, he took an interest in designing and building his own furniture.
Louis and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1956. He put the skills he learned as a child in Hungary to use, at first taking up employment with an upholsterer. At the same time, he started working out of his garage, building and selling his own custom furniture.

Five years later, he opened his first store in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, and shortly after, moved to Yonge Street where he primarily sold breakfast nooks, a hot commodity at the time.

When their popularity waned, Louis already had a solid reputation and a cadre of dedicated fans. His customers weren’t necessarily wealthy, but “he priced his products very reasonably and his clients had an eye for quality,” she adds.

Thirty years ago, Louis’s son Bill took over day-to-day management of the business. As vice-president, he has branched the company out into the interior design industry.
“He wanted to do for hospitality what his father did for residential designers, which was to provide style and attention to detail, something he felt was lacking in the industry,” she explains.

With this new business model, Louis Interiors no longer partakes in furniture design – that’s left up to the interior designers. For the small amount of design work they do, the company uses two software suites: Rhinoceros 3D and AutoCad 2009.

According to figures posted by Industry Canada, the company achieves sales between $1 million and $4.9 million per year.

Like many Canadian manufacturers, its export business suffered as result of the recession. Pre-recession, US customers accounted for 80% of the business with domestic clients making up most of the remaining 20%. Now customers are evenly split between Canada and the US with a smattering of clients worldwide.
Though the business has changed, the handcrafted approach to furniture making hasn’t. There are no conveyors, robots, or heavy machinery at the 20,000 square-foot plant, which certainly dials down the energy intensity.

Susie says using mass manufacturing processes would take them out of their market niche where they have built a solid reputation for providing hand-made, high-quality, durable furniture.

Yet the company doesn’t completely eschew technology; it’s planning to purchase a CNC machine for the woodworking area.

Series of workshops
The factory floor is best described as a series of workshops and since energy use doesn’t have a huge impact on the company’s carbon footprint, green initiatives are focused around materials.

Soft maple certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) provides the foundation for any piece of furniture – the frame. The company sources locally from forests in northern Quebec and Ontario, which decreases shipping and fuel costs, and intends to participate in a program to replace as many trees as they use each year.

Wood is dried by kiln, not with chemicals. Any medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is formaldehyde-free. Cutting, carving, gluing and lacquering are done in a woodworking area adjacent to the main factory floor.

“We use materials that are easy on the environment and have low toxicity levels. For example, water-based versus solvent-based lacquers are something we have tried, and try often to use on our products,” she explains.

However, there is one drawback to some water-based products: they can release more volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which Susie notes, can pose a health risk to staff.

Ultimately, being sustainable wasn’t a huge undertaking for Louis Interiors because many of the traditional furniture making methods Louis brought with him from Hungary were already easy on the environment.

For example, Italian twine, made from hemp, is used to tie down the coils.

“Hemp is one of the faster growing biomasses known,” Susie says. “It’s environmentally friendly as it requires very few pesticides and no herbicides. It’s called a carbon-negative raw material.”

Jute webbing, used to provide support for the upholstery, is made from the skin of the Jute plant and is biodegradable. On top of that, it’s strong.

Also made from Jute is Hessian fabric, more commonly known as burlap in North America. Louis Interiors uses heavier Hessians to cover springing and spring units.

A layer of 100% organically grown cotton felt is placed on top of the Hessian to prevent coils from poking into the foam.

Tying down the coils and attaching the support fabrics are carried out on the main factory floor, just outside the woodworking room, which the second stage of the manufacturing process.

Natural materials
At the third stage, in an adjacent area on the main factory floor, the foam is attached though there’s a separate room where it’s stored and cut.

By default, the company uses polyurethane foam for seating but customers have an option to use a soy-based foam called Koosh, manufactured by Toronto-based Foamite, which is Louis Interiors’ main foam supplier.

Upholstery is the final layer. The upholsterer takes charge of this process, with employees at his disposal who stitch and cut fabric according to his direction.
Marlene Makowka has been working with Louis Interiors for about 20 years, and says the company’s use of sustainable, natural materials is definitely a sell for some of its clients. Makowka is a co-owner and founder of Toronto design firm Hefele-Makowka.

“People who are spending money for Canadian-made goods deserve to know they are getting products that are formaldehyde-free. They could find products that cost much less but suffer.”

Though semi-retired, Louis is still active at the company. He tours the plant every day to ensure things are running smoothly. Although the business he started more than 60 years ago has come a long way from its humble breakfast nook beginnings, when it comes to its manufacturing processes, not much has changed.
Traditional is still a success, with global installations, a lean carbon footprint and solid quality all contributing to the niche furniture manufacturer’s competitive edge.

Comments? E-mail jterrett@plant.

This article appears in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of PLANT.

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