By Emily Allan
Jonsara Ruth (she/her) is a designer, artist, researcher, and educator who splits her time between her collaborative design studio Salty Labs and The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City. After dedicating seven years to founding Parson’s progressive MFA Interior Design program, Ruth went on to start the school’s Healthy Materials Lab, a research lab committed to raising awareness about environmental toxicity within the built environment. As design director, Ruth aims to make healthier places for all to live.
Prior to joining Parsons, Ruth worked extensively in the commercial furniture industry, where she was the first lead designer for the Martha Stewart Signature Furniture Collection. In the early 2000s, she made it her mission to pursue circular and sustainable design initiatives by using her capacity as a designer to introduce healthy material choices and traditional crafts into her interior design practice. Ruth’s unique professional experience has provided her with an understanding of the interior design industry from both sides of the “sustainable divide” and informs the trajectory of her creative practice, defined by a commitment to making curious spaces through sustainable design.
Emily Allan: I thought we could start by talking about the Healthy Materials Lab. What is the focus of the lab’s work, and what was your role in its founding?
Jonsara Ruth: I started Healthy Materials Lab with my colleague Alison Mears through a grant provided by the JPB Foundation, whose work is centered on making all affordable housing healthy. We began the lab with this concept and the goal of training the next generation of designers and architects around the country. We want to educate emerging and established design professionals by raising their awareness of the current threats to human health and environmental decline and providing them with the tools to change conventional practices in the building industry. We believe choosing healthy materials is a way to do this.
The Healthy Materials Lab is focused on building the capacity of the affordable housing sector through design-led research and education initiatives so that designers and architects can make better material decisions for their residents. The focus of our work is to bring healthier materials to all people, specifically starting with people who are most vulnerable and who don’t have the privilege or the liberty of choosing the materials that surround them in their living spaces. One way we do this is to work alongside designers and planners who are working in affordable housing and encourage them to make actionable changes in their material specifications. We start these collaborations at the beginning of a project to promote a holistic approach to materials-thinking in affordable housing. A recent example of this work is our collaboration with the New York City Housing Authority, in which we encouraged them to do something as simple as change their interior paint specifications.
Through creating and collecting case studies of healthy affordable housing, we have been able to distill guiding principles in material health for future social housing construction and renovation projects. We’ve collected our findings and curated a healthy, sustainable materials library on our website, where it is accessible to anyone.
I’d love to hear a bit about what research you’ve been doing over the last year, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has informed your work with the Healthy Materials Lab?
This year I have been reflecting and educating myself, challenging the way I habitually do things both independently and collaboratively. COVID-19 has further illustrated the tremendous social and regional inequities that have always existed. The communities who are most exposed to environmental health pollution—from both exterior and interior sources—are the ones who are suffering most from this pandemic. The virus has shed light on the interconnectedness of our systems on a global level. Through this, it has shifted our focus from an individual to a communal approach to human health, safety, and environmental wellness. Health and wellness equity is foundational to climate justice and sustainable design work. The response must center and uplift the marginalized communities who have been affected the most by COVID-19 and environmental collapse while fostering collaboration as a world community. Our approaches to climate change must mirror this.
With these ideas in mind, I started to look inward at my own blind spots by asking myself about my complicities on a personal and institutional level. I realized that, to move forward, I had to expand opportunities beyond my current networks. I’ve started to alter the way I approach new projects and collaborate with a broader professional network. This work also extends to the Healthy Materials Lab, where we continue our work in equity training to help us understand our underlying values and challenge ways in which our institution is complicit. The process has been humbling and opens new possibilities.
What is the driving force behind your personal design practice Salty Labs?
Within Salty Labs, everything is an experiment. Our work revolves around the question of how to make surprising and artful interior spaces that ignite people’s curiosity while using materials and furnishings that prevent negative environmental and health impacts. For us, design is about taking something that already exists in the world and renovating it to be new—or making it feel new without creating more waste. So many interiors just produce more waste. You get a new project, you gut it, you produce all this refuse that gets trucked away to a landfill. And then you fill it with stuff that’s going to be torn away again in a few years time. It’s ridiculous! To counter this we start our projects by determining how much of the original interior we can reuse. This process of reuse is dependent on the unique circumstances of each site we work with. Every project is different.
How do themes of craft, material health, and bioregionalism present themselves within your creative process and in what ways does this diverge from consumerist tendencies within the field of interior design?
As a designer, I like to support people who make things. This value is reflected in Salty Labs’ collaborative design approach. I believe working with other people makes for stronger work with a more exciting process and a better end product. I’m totally passionate about maintaining knowledge and know-how of traditional crafts in our culture and believe that working with knowledgeable artisans is a way of sustaining this culture.
Collaboration with experienced craftspeople strengthens our connection and understanding of materials and fabrication methods and acts as an opportunity for promoting healthier material choices in our design work. At Salty Labs, we don’t use typical latex paints; instead we design for wall and furniture surfaces that are mineral, clay, or lime-based. Instead of off-gassing VOCs and other harmful substances into an interior, these paints and plasters absorb toxics from the air and modify the interior climate to our benefit.
I try to challenge consumerist practices in design by avoiding mass-manufactured goods and harmful materials. Instead, Salty Labs looks to interior crafts, creative reuse, and partnerships with local makers. Through this practice we support local economies while diminishing waste, and use healthy materials to make compelling spaces that uplift peoples’ lives. It’s a process that I find to be extremely creative.
I want to ask about Salty Lab’s Furniture Renovations series, in which you manipulated broken mid-century modern furniture into new compositions. This feels incredibly relevant to current dialogue in art & design, in which there seems to be cycling thoughts of wanting to make new creative work while also recognizing that our world contains an immense surplus of things. Can you talk about that project and your approach to balancing creative output with consumer culture?
Furniture Renovations began with a collection of worn furniture that either needed to be repaired or was headed for the landfill. Rather than restore the pieces back to their original provenance, I saw creative value in experimenting with constructing new work using the old building blocks. I decided, let’s just make it absolutely new, tear it apart, and put it back together with the same parts, but make it into something different. Our deconstruction investigation made the furniture’s material composition visible and helped us to understand the designer’s original intent. The process of tearing apart and pulling back together became a collaboration with the furniture’s original designers and manufacturers, in which certain decisions of the past could be embraced and others could be completely challenged.
This project reaffirmed my belief that there is so much room for creativity within a sustainable scope. Reuse as a design tool isn’t limited to maintaining objects in their original state. By combining healthier materials with strategies of reuse, we can give old objects new meaning in a way that is inherently collaborative, engaging, and sustainable for the future. When you’re born with a creative drive and you want to make things that contribute to the built environment, that feeling doesn’t just go away. Through projects like this I have formed a practice where we can avoid harmful decisions and continue to make creative work.
You describe yourself as an “agitator for design and a catalyst for healthy materials.” What does this mean to you?
As a designer, you can be an agent of change. I believe we each have a role to play in making this planet better. As designers we have this privilege of choice within the built environment that can have profound effects on other people’s experiences. Through building capacity in healthy materials and sustainable building techniques, designers can limit their impact on climate change and positively affect people’s connection with things and spaces. We need to educate ourselves about materials. We need to familiarize ourselves with the material supply chain and understand how and why things are made. We need to think more circularly about the design process and consider where materials go at the end of their life. Challenging these ignorances can keep us accountable to make healthy design choices for the future that minimize negative impact on the environments of people and planet. These choices are equally creative and contribute to better living for all people.
About the Author
Emily Allan (she/her) is a designer & artist based in Toronto. In 2020 she graduated from Ryerson University with a B.Des in Interior Design with specialization in design fabrication. Emily’s creative interests are guided by a heuristic learning-through-making approach that centers experimental design, sustainability, and alternative domesticity. Emily also makes pneumatics and researches the creative re-use of plastic waste via textile manipulation techniques as part of her design collective studio rat. Learn more about Emily on her Instagram, website and on LinkedIn.