glittery city dwellings, majestic mountain lodges, and curated beachside residences all share her style of “relaxed luxury.” Her work in these high-end residential projects demonstrates an affection for color, a love of textiles, and deep respect for her clients’ preferences, and they also embrace clean and green sustainable principles.
Hanson, 65, says her passion for sustainability began when she was a teen. “I would make my father drive me to the recycling center outside Philadelphia with all the glass bottles from our household,” she says. “We had to separate it by color; it gave me a feeling that we can control the amount of waste that we’re producing.”
Now Hanson is taking aim at planned obsolescence, the glut of consumer goods that quickly outlive their service life and wind up in landfills. “Things that you can buy online end up being thrown out because they break,” Hanson says. “And they don’t get passed along from one generation to the next.” Hanson has been working to stop the disposability trend for decades.
PENTA: When did you decide to incorporate sustainability into your practice?
Ellen Hanson: Long before vintage was a fad, I was putting vintage and antique furniture in my projects. I grew up in a house with a lot of antiques and always liked the gravitas that they brought. I’d always look at them and wonder what house was this in before? What family was using this cupboard? Vintage and antique furniture was built to last and oftentimes it’s passed down through a family as an heirloom. They’re out there, ready to be collected by people who understand the quality of stuff that was made in the before times when people really cared about quality. Of course we do have to use new things in our projects, but we try to use as much vintage as we can convince the client to be comfortable with.
How do you convince clients who want everything new?
Ellen Hanson: I have to talk to them more on the level of how this is working for you in terms of the design of your home. That’s fun because you can say, “This piece is really a practical thing, you have children. It already has some wear on it and it will look even better with more wear. You won’t ever have to worry about someone scratching or dinging it, because it already has those things. And yet it still looks really beautiful.”
What about people who are already interested in sustainability?
Ellen Hanson: They’re like, “What else have you got?” When I first got into this business, there was no sustainability around textiles and carpets; wall-to-wall carpeting was a nightmare. You would rip it out and throw that in the landfill and then you’d replace it and then that would end up in the landfill. Now there are recyclable fibers. They’re making carpet that lasts longer. Solution-dyed acrylic fibers are great; they last forever, they keep their color and you can wash them over and over again…. You don’t have to fill every house top to bottom with vintage, but we are always on the lookout for people who are designing in a responsible way.
Like the team you’re working with in Connecticut?
Ellen Hanson: The farm in Connecticut has a 1740s house on site. Unfortunately, it’s had five additions from the eighties and nineties. After a lot of back and forth, we decided that the smartest thing to do would be to take them off. This is when you start to question yourself about sustainability, “Is this the right thing to do?” But the construction was so poor, we felt like we had to take it back to what it was originally meant to be. We’re building another house that will have all kinds of bells and whistles to make it as close to a passive house as we can; it’s going to have solar tiles on the roof, a geothermal heating/cooling system and other things so it uses less energy than typical houses. Instead of having cattle grazing in the fields, we’re doing pollinator meadows with beekeeping.
Didn’t you work on Paul Rudolph’s famous Cocoon House in Florida?
Ellen Hanson: Architecture Sarasota asked me to restore and decorate the interior as closely as possible to how
would’ve done it. We studied old photographs and went vintage furniture shopping and found some really fun stuff. Rudolph built some very interesting houses in Sarasota, which were very sustainable and quite passive in terms of energy use. They didn’t have a lot of air conditioning back then; he had to come up with ways to get ventilation into these houses. The Cocoon House has these jalousie windows that can be opened on each side of the house so the breezes from the bayou the house sits on can come through.
Your love of textiles stands out in your work. How did that come about?
Ellen Hanson: When I was a child I took embroidery classes with
who was married to this famous furniture designer
The two of them had a house on Nantucket, where my family spent our summers. My mom sent me off to have embroidery classes with Erica, who taught me things like satin stitch, cross stitch, and interesting knots that you would do to get texture in the embroidery.
a famous American textile designer, had a showroom in New York; it was his wonderful, rich, unusual weavings that got me really excited and intrigued.
What’s exciting and intriguing these days?
Ellen Hanson: Fish leather! Someone mentioned it in passing and my ears perked up. I discovered this giant fish in the Amazon called the pirarucu. It’s really beautiful. It has a very interesting texture; it’s like the reverse of scales, more like indentations in the flesh. When it’s tanned, it turns into this very pale, celadon greenish-gray color. I was desperate to use it and it’s really expensive, so I was only able to make one pillow out of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.