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The Queen of Stylish Green

Andrea Kantelberg’s interior design studio is pure white. White walls, white table, white chairs. The headquarters of Kantelberg Design is more like a canvass than an office, a space where Canada’s doyenne of green design can create in the high style meets healthy design aesthetic for which she’s now known.

Kantelberg has made a name for herself as a designer of chic condominium interiors. She works for high-end developers in downtown Toronto, designing elegant lobbies and inspiring model suites, as well as coming up with the finishes that buyers will choose from for cabinets and flooring. Now she’s using her success to spread the word about healthy design, attempting to make environmental consciousness part of everyone’s furnishing equation.

Kantelberg incorporates the principles of green design into every project, so the spaces she creates can be healthy, beautiful places to live for those with – and without – asthma and environmental sensitivities. “It’s important for me to make sure people are buying a suite without chemicals,” she says. Without any compromise on the style front, of course.

Kantelberg didn’t set out with a grand plan to become Canada’s ultimate eco-interior designer. Arriving there has been, one might say, an organic process. She’s the daughter of two eco-minded parents who taught her to be cognizant of her impact on Mother Earth.

Ever since she was a child, Kantelberg has also suffered with environmental sensitivities – severe enough that her mother used to bring along sheets for her daughter wherever they travelled. Today, she still can’t wear synthetic fabrics and becomes unwell in an air-conditioned environment. She can get sick even staying one night in a hotel with poor air quality. “It has helped me as a designer because I am aware of how these things affect people.”

Kantelberg enrolled in design school at 27, graduating in 1994, and opening her own studio specializing in luxury interiors by 1997. Nine years later, Tridel asked her to design what it dubbed its “Eco Suite,” an educational condominium the company was creating to demonstrate sustainable living.

Intrigued, Kantelberg went all-out to create the ultimate green space. She brought in recycled drywall and non-toxic, water-based stains and glues. She made sure linens were organic, paints emitted the least amount of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) possible and fixtures conserved energy and water.

In older condo buildings, air is circulated among the units (so if your neighbour down the hall smokes, you’ll end up breathing it). To avoid this, Kantelberg had an Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) system installed to filter the Eco Suite’s air. The project awakened her inner environmentalist. In every job since, she has incorporated elements of green design.

For her, environmentally friendly and healthy definitely don’t translate as granola and hippie. Her style can be summed up as chic – think minimalist, cool, modern.

To find the perfect balance between the aesthete and the healthful, Kantelberg and her colleagues at the west-end Toronto studio research for hours upon hours (a recent project took 1,000 research hours) to find products that can meet all her design and environmental goals.

One example was a fibreboard completely free of formaldehyde – the odourous gas emitted by new furnishings and glues that is irritating to people with asthma and environmental sensitivities. Other finds have been wall coverings that use a non-toxic, water-based glue. Kantelberg employs elements you’d find in other modern interiors, but just makes them better for you.

While she has noticed some improvement among mainstream suppliers, she still finds far too few sustainable products widely available to consumers. And this infuriates Kantelberg. “If I am buying food and there are more than five ingredients and words I don’t understand, I’m not going to buy it. Why aren’t there ingredients on furniture? Or on a kitchen?”

She knows not everyone can hire a designer like her to green their homes, but she believes that consumers as a group have the clout to change the renovating industry. “When you go to Home Depot, ask: ‘Are there chemicals in this kitchen?’ The more people who ask these questions, the faster the companies will come up with chemical-free ones.”

Once a critical mass is achieved, says Kantelberg, more products will become available and the costs of producing them will lessen, bringing prices down and making this kind of building and design available to everyone.

She points to a recent project in a new development located in Toronto’s trendy Queen West. A business partnership forged between two of her suppliers has allowed her to create what she considers the healthiest kitchen ever made in Canada. The cabinets, the counters, the flooring – none of them off-gasses chemicals.

At a recent meeting, the two companies were talking seriously about making this healthy kitchen available to the public at large, she relates with enthusiasm. “I think it’s possible to be innovative and produce things with fewer chemicals,” Kantelberg says. “It just takes a little more work.”

First published in Allergic Living magazine, Fall 2008.
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