An earlier version of this story originally appeared in 1stdibs’ Introspective Magazine.
The word “eco-luxury” makes interior designer Ellen Hanson cringe. The word is far too simple—too one-size-fits-all—to describe her personalized and balanced approach. For the New York-based designer, the word does not mean using the latest green gadgets (see Kohler’s eco-friendly Numi toilet) or making an extravagant shopping trip to High Point Market. Eco-luxury, in her eyes, hinges on “having exactly what you need and want in just the right spot.” It’s a directive her high-end residential design firm, Ellen Hanson Designs, applies to every new project.
“We think local where possible, sustainable (of course), essential (not too gadget or gimmick obsessed), repurposed, durable (heirlooms are so eco-wise) and handmade (à la the slow movement),” she says. “Our process is characterized by curiosity, enthusiasm and openness to new ways of thinking.”
Hanson’s work and dedication to the environment is a lifelong mission that began simply and organically as a young girl in Philadelphia who enlisted her father to drive and help her sort colored glass bottles and tin cans at a recycling center. Looking back, she says, “I am not sure where my zeal for conservation came from, but I am glad my father appreciated it, because he was the one between the two of us who was old enough to have a driver’s license! I could have never made it to the drop-off center without his support … and wheels. My dad was my first dedicated—at least he was to me—environmental partner.”
Today, Hanson’s design firm provides for its clients careful design choices using both her artistic eye and her inherent sophistication, to which she morphs a mindfulness to green.
“My clients, while not always fully adopting a green consciousness, do appreciate my making environmentally responsible choices in their homes,” reveals Hanson, who admits to occasionally sneaking in eco-luxury items without her client knowing of their complete green benefits. “For example, we recently purchased a striking chandelier from Todd Merrill made by the Irish sculptor Niamh Barry, which is illuminated with hundreds of LED lights. I am optimistic about the future, as we are experiencing a major paradigm shift in architecture and design.”
An eco-luxe highlight in the last few years has been working from conception through installation on the award-winning (and first!) LEED Gold hotel in the Intercontinental Hotel Group. Mingling with industry giants was an invigorating infusion of resources and ideas. The Hotel Indigo Athens is going strong and getting great feedback from guests and brand leaders, proving that sustainability in hotels is a wonderful expression of hospitality.
Hanson’s latest green project—a $12 million Hamptons home designed by James Merrell Architects (a frequent collaborator of hers) and built by Hamptons luxury builder Peter Cardel—may encourage that very shift in thinking. Her team was commissioned to stage the home “on a lark”—but the limited time frame turned out to be the mother of their innovation. Hanson’s designers scoured their storerooms and borrowed from their favorite dealers to create a fresh new space that felt tailored and “beautifully lived in without buying anything at all.” They also used a trusted installer—so trucking was consolidated into a few trips. The packaging materials were also saved for reuse.
“There were only two contractor bags of actual landfill trash at the end of that job—remarkably little for a five-bedroom, 9,500-square-foot luxury home filled with precious treasures,” she says. “With only a few weeks of prep and an intensive two-day installation, the ‘pop-up home’ looked so beautiful we even brought in a photographer to capture the space.”
In 2008, Hanson participated in the first green Hamptons Cottages & Gardens Idea House in Sagaponack, N.Y., where she designed—to solid reviews—the kitchen and the casual dining areas of the environmentally sensitive showcase house. Proceeds from ticket sales benefited the Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Long Island’s working farms, natural lands and heritage. Hanson has been a longtime Hamptons resident and staunch believer in preserving farm and other open land from massive overdevelopment.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, the second of five children of a physician father and a nutritionist stay-at-home mother, Hanson majored in art history at Cornell University, where she included in her studies courses in organic gardening—demonstrating even then her unwavering draw to both the fine arts and concern for the Earth. “I have always followed my gut instincts,” says Hanson, “as it has driven me to celebrate the beauty within our culture and respect the Earth, to which we are stewards.”
After graduating from Cornell, Hanson began her career in the design field by working for a custom furniture manufacturing firm in its textile division. “I have always been drawn to fabrics: the drape, the texture, their feel on the hand,” she says, “so working with designers who used rich, gorgeous textiles was a wonderful experience for me and a great entrée into the world of interior design.”
Displaying a natural flair for design, Hanson was invited to work on small interior projects, which, in short time, expanded to her taking on full commission. It was during this period that Hanson met future husband Richard Perlman, whom she lightheartedly describes as “a serial entrepreneur”—the savvy investor/businessman who bought the company where Hanson then worked. Perlman today is the chairman of ExamWorks. The couple have been married for 20 years and have a son, Andrew, by Perlman’s first marriage, daughter-in-law Mary Louise and two grandchildren.
Hanson and Perlman call New York home, splitting their time between their apartment across from the Met on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and, until recently, their exquisite 1830’s Greek Revival in Sag Harbor, where Hanson once took time to pen her monthly, uniquely written “Green Scene” column for 1stdibs Introspective. Having completed a new home in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2013 and a remodel of a 1957 School of Sarasota bungalow on Lido Key in 2014, Ellen is constantly on the go. Between site visits during the week and travels with Richard on the weekends, she can be found looking for artisans and craftsmen who work locally using tried and true traditional techniques. Some of her favorites include Jonas, a furniture upholsterer located in Manhattan, and Sawkille in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a group of craftsmen making contemporary furniture using artisanal techniques.
More of Hanson’s style picks are detailed below.
Design inspirations: James Turrell for his groundbreaking use of light, Donald Judd for his minimalist yet playful aesthetic and Olafur Eliasson for his exquisite integration of architecture, geometry and atmosphere.
Dream client: A partner in search of cutting-edge green solutions in interior design who loves a good flea market find.
Love to design for: Someone with the recombinant DNA of Sheila Hicks, Peggy Guggenheim and Thomas Jefferson. Bohemian creativity and Yankee ingenuity meet wealth and prophetic vision.
What’s in: Re-usable, durable, heirloom, designed for long and useful life.
What’s out: Disposable, engineered for obsolescence, toxic ingredient-containing gadgets.
Can’t live without: Weekly visits to my local organic farmer’s market.
Biggest design success: Is yet to come! I look forward to improving what we have done before, and always learning and growing.
Biggest design mistake: That flowered wallpaper in my bedroom chosen when I was eight years old.
Most rewarding design experience: Completely natural upholstery in a home and the client only noticing the extreme comfort and luxury of it—a demonstration of seamless integration of eco into luxury.
Easiest way to upgrade our homes for better environmental living: Scrap the bleach, ditch the Windex—use natural cleaning products. Install dual flush toilets; we love the Toto Aquia. Consider installing one of the host energy-saving products by Lutron—everything from dimmers to shading solutions to occupancy/vacancy sensors can help lower the carbon burn.
Cost to design environmentally aware: It does not necessarily have to cost more—it just requires more thought about where things come from and where they end up.
Importance of antiques or vintage pieces: Immeasurable! Use the stuff that’s already been made, and made to last. Now, if only we could find a fleet of green truckers, our carbon footprint would be zero.
What’s ahead in high-end environmental design: Environmentally responsible design is going to become less of a niche category and more of a basic building block of the high-quality, well-crafted items we place in our clients’ homes.
Best environmentally sensitive gift: Nothing! Or perhaps a couple of the nifty ReCap lids that turn old mason jars into “mugs to go.”
Improving the way we design today: Less of a “toss it out and start over” philosophy. Change for the sake of change is not so green.
Vision of design in the next ten years: There will be a cornucopia of sustainable and renewable materials, products and smart-house software for designers to choose from. New homes will be smaller and leaner, and carbon-lite will be the norm. We will be consuming energy in smaller quantities (more like our forefathers) but with the help of apps to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Next for Ellen Hanson Designs: Learning how to say “no”? Never! Each new challenge is an exciting opportunity to grow our skill sets and share our point of view.