When a Chemist and Environmentalist Meet

How do a biophysical chemist and a steadfast environmentalist find their way to accepting one of the top honors in the commercial interior design industry? The two honorees of the Leadership Award of Excellence at this year’s IIDA Leaders Breakfast San Francisco are renowned in this industry, but not how the general audience is involved. Their journeys are separated by their personal feats and intertwined by their commitment to advocating for reducing the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals in the products and furniture of which the industry’s designers and representatives create, sell, and use in their everyday lives.

Arlene Blum, Ph. D., executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and Judy Levin, director of the Center for Environmental Health’s (CEH) Pollution Prevention, joined efforts in 2012 to revise the outdated standard which allowed the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals in furniture and baby product foam across the U.S. and Canada. The same toxic chemical Blum successfully helped remove from children’s pajamas in 1978 had continued to be used in furniture. Advocating for the supply and demand of healthier furniture, Blum continued her efforts on working with and educating furniture and foam manufacturers, which she initially started in 2006. Meanwhile, Levin took the other side of the message and began educating the designers and purchasers.  Levin has successfully enlisted an impressive list of purchasing companies such as Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, HDR Architecture, and Perkins+Will to express their desire to buy retardant-free furniture using the “Purchasers Pledge.”

With the support of California’s governor, Jerry Brown, and a California-based flame retardant coalition, co-led by Levin and the CEH, the California furniture flammability standard was finally changed so that flame retardants are no longer needed in furniture and baby products. Along with furniture, these requirements have also led to ability of manufacturers to meet the new standards without the use of toxic flame retardants in mattress pads and children’s products such as changing pads and strollers. In 2010, the Green Science Policy Institute’s work helped prevent a new standard that would have led to flame retardants in pillows mattress pads and comforters – another huge victory for the public’s health, environment, as well as fire safety. The new furniture flammability standard in California has become a de facto national standard.

Blum and Levin first collaborated in 2008 on preventing a new requirement that would have led to flame retardants in electronics enclosures. At the time, Levin was developing an ecolabel (EPEAT) for electronic devices by developing criteria to restrict the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals, all the while Blum worked on the international standards that would promote the use of flame retardants in electronics worldwide. The two, along with a small but active group of allies, are responsible for thwarting international standards that would have led to the use of billions of pounds of flame retardants in electronics cases around the world.

Most recently, Blum and Levin collaborated to prevent new and potentially harmful furniture flammability standards which are under consideration by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2014, CEH co-sponsored a bill that now requires manufacturers who sell furniture in California to label their products for the presence or absence of flame retardant chemicals. A bill to require the labeling of flame retardants in children’s products is in progress and will be voted on by this September. The Green Science Policy Institute continues to educate purchasers, designers, retailers, and manufacturers to reduce the use of whole classes of harmful chemicals.

Read more about the honorees:
How Dangerous Is Your Couch?
Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out Of The Office: An Easy Guide To Going Flame Retardant Free 
VIDEO: A Flame Retardant That Came With Its Own Threat to Health
Are You Safe on that Sofa?
Green Science Policy Institute Consumer Resources
Six Classes: A Webinar Series on Chemicals of Concern
Major Producers Eliminating Flame Retardant Chemicals as Major Buyers Are Demanding Flame Retardant-Free Furniture


Learn more about IIDA Leaders Breakfast and purchase your tickets!

Have You Been to Leaders Breakfast?

Raise your hand if you’ve been to an IIDA Leaders Breakfast. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the eight cities that hosts the annual international series, your hand should be up. As one of the premiere events select IIDA chapters have the opportunity to host, Leaders Breakfast is the perfect way to cultivate connections and change your morning routine – leaving you feeling inspired! With the support of the event’s International Benefactors, Herman Miller and Interior Design Media, Leaders Breakfast is the place to be when you want to impress your clients or showcase your company to hundreds of industry associates. With record numbers of attendance at the first two breakfasts of 2015, the series is gaining the momentum it well deserves.

The IIDA Leaders Breakfast event series celebrates design’s importance in the global market place by honoring the people who are both the legacy and future of design. Each chosen host city organizes a breakfast that features a renowned keynote speaker to provoke and encourage new ideas, and recognize one city-selected honoree who has made significant contributions to the design industry. Honorees receive the coveted Leadership of Excellence Award and a special edition Charles and Ray Eames stool awarded by Herman Miller.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

The sunrise networking gala begins around 7 a.m., when top-tier professionals from the largest companies in the industry start pouring through the doors. Designers, architects, directors, CEOs, industry members, media, sales reps, dealers, and students join forces, socializing and networking before the event. Soon enough, the coffee reception feels like a cocktail party filled with chatter, laughter, and camera flashes.

The Leaders Breakfast program begins by recognizing the honoree. The introduction and acceptance speeches are very moving; giving the audience an understanding of the path the honoree took to get here. The honoree for the 2015 Leaders Breakfast Atlanta, Stephen Swicegood, IIDA, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Principal and Managing Director, Gensler Atlanta, reflected on leadership and early conversations with Art Gensler himself. Swicegood urged the audience to “let go of who you think you need to be and be who you are.”

The program concludes with a thought-provoking, renowned keynote speaker to jumpstart your day with a dose of creative inspiration. Having had the opportunity to get to know the keynote speakers prior to the show, it is interesting to see their cool demeanor before they present as larger-than-life characters on stage. The 2015 Leaders Breakfast New York keynote, Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture & Design and Director of Research & Development at MoMA, was calm as anyone simply attending the breakfast. She leaned over and asked me if her hair looked okay prior to stepping on stage before 700+ attendees. Her presentation awed the audience by combining art with critical analysis. Antonelli’s speech referenced MIT Media Lab’s Neri Oxman and her silkworm project, which Oxman presented at the 2014 Chicago Leaders Breakfast. “Design is not only cute chairs and fast cars, but it is also origami, 3-D printing, and, as much as possible, design is critical,” said Antonelli.

During the Atlanta breakfast, I spoke with keynote David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, who saw the breakfast as “the dichotomy of someone who spent their whole career in the industry paired with someone from the outside who is providing an outside voice,” and described the event as “not just a meal for your body, but a meal for your mind.” His speech inspired audiences to recognize how to get better ideas by growing their network and collaborating differently.

Not all Leaders Breakfast keynote speakers have messages of art or design, or even creativity.  The upcoming fall and winter keynotes will stretch from award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed, who will tell her powerful story of endurance, to Jonathan Perelman,  Vice President of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures, who will address how to create shareable, social content and offer insight into how to maximize the content’s impact.

Whether your pocket is full of business cards of new contacts or your head is full of new ideas and perspective, a morning at Leaders Breakfast will always leave you with something brilliant to take away.


Learn more about Leaders Breakfast and register to attend an event near you!