Specifying It: Robin Reigi of Robin Reigi Inc. @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Robin Reigi: I want to start by talking a little bit about the topic of the day and what led me to the materials that I chose for my presentation. If anyone is familiar with our company, Robin Reigi Inc, you are probably aware that we have a broad variety of materials and we do the best we can to focus on energy efficient or environmental products.

When we were asked to put together a presentation on energy efficient materials I immediately started to interview our manufacturers. I learned very quickly that large scale manufacturing is actually a huge challenge when it comes to energy conservation. So, to be upfront from the onset, what we are talking about, with the exception of Smith & Fong who manufacture Plyboo products, is more towards handmade materials. That’s where we found most of the energy efficiency, because it is human energy, and that’s where people are going to naturally to conserve energy; it’s what’s best for them physically.

I also wanted to touch on some of the trends that we have found around the environmental movement, which I think we can all agree has reached a tipping point. We’ve noticed that not only are designers, manufacturers, and architects looking for materials that are green in terms of their recycled content and environmental impact, but they’re also, especially with our retail clients, looking for things that look green. It’s really informing color pallets and the style of the materials, and also in general the overall feeling in the genre of the materials that people looking for now.

We don’t want to dilute the concept of working with actual green materials, but I do find it very interesting that the manufacturers that are doing hand-made, natural looking things are getting the most attention right now. When we first started in this industry ten years ago everybody wanted the hi-tech stuff. Now we are finding that the artisans are coming very much back into favor, and that is something worth noting.

First what I would like to talk about Smith & Fong, the makers of the Plyboo brand environmental building products. Smith & Fong has been around about fifteen years, they are located in San Francisco and most their manufacturing is done in either China or Taiwan. Most of you are probably familiar with Smith & Fong through their bamboo product line, it was their first material that they brought into the industry and pioneered a lot of the bamboo that you would have seen in the market.

Durapalm is the brand name that Smith & Fong uses for coconut palm wood. The interesting thing about coconut palm wood from an environmental point of view is, unlike bamboo, you are not going to get LEED qualification for the material—well you will but not for rapid renewal. Coconut palm wood renews after 20 years, so we are not looking at it as we do bamboo, but rather, the material itself is reclaimed from plantation palms throughout the world. Coconut palm wood grows throughout the world, it’s a very abundant material. The trees which are grown for their coconuts go sterile after 40 years and become useless. So Smith & Fong go to farmers throughout the world, mostly in Indonesia, and harvest those useless trees to construct flooring and plywood materials. It is a great opportunity to work with small farmers that have materials that are really no longer useful on their plantations, and turn them in to building materials. That’s the number one reason why we find palm wood becoming the new luxury lifestyle building material in the world of green materials.

Coconut palm has a lot of degrees of density. It’s actually a hard material to manufacture and engineer, and there is a lot of color variation. A sample with a natural mahogany color might be very nice for some retail applications where you want to bring a warmth, sort of West Coast feel.

When we started to market the material in New York, we thought it would be nice to bring more of an urban kind of darkness to it and make it a bit more consistent overall. We started doing an ebony and walnut stain on the material, which brings a really nice consistency to the product for flooring.

When you buy a raw material from small farmers in Asia, one of the first things you learn is that you might buy a container of raw material thinking that you are going get one thing. Then a container shows up at your factory and 70 percent of it is what you asked for and the other 30 percent is something else. So you have a lot of waste. A good manufacturer knows what to do with their waste—make other products out of it.

What I am going to show you now is our Palmwoven. This is a brand new product that we launched here at ICFF. It uses all of the different color variations, all of the small pieces, and all of the waste from our coconut palm wood, to create a very lovely decorative wall panel. The product was engineered to fit together in a seamless way, so on the wall you have a nice transition form panel to panel.

One of the other things we are doing with the coconut palm wood material is making engrain block. We are creating little blocks out of it, and then bonding them together to create a counter top or butcher’s block surface. Now we are also doing a flooring version of that.

Basically we are taking a very simple material, which is actually very difficult to engineer because of density issues, and we are engineering a lot of different looking materials by either adjusting the color of the product or just giving it a different graphic by exposing the end grain or the edge grain. Incidentally, things that are turned upside down or deconstructed, basically exposed as an edge grain or end grain are really hot and trendy right now, so anything we can do to flip around and turn upside down, we find we have a lot of success with.

The next thing is Nature Squared, one of the handmade materials that I was referring to earlier. This company is addressing a topic that I don’t think is being addressed much right now in the world of green and environmental sustainability—and that is social consciousness. This product is manufactured in a small town in Vietnam, close to Ho Chi Min City. What you will find in Vietnam is that there are whole towns and cultures that are focused on these very interesting techniques. They are studied in whole families through generations and create accessories and other products. Whole towns are sustained by the techniques that these folks use.

One of those materials is Vietnamese lacquer. We consider this manufacturer to be philanthropists. They are a European company that went and found craftspeople working with traditional techniques. The manufacturer markets these products with the craftspeople, which really sustains the culture.

The Vietnamese are very connected with not only the traditional techniques, but also traditional patterning, so a lot of the things we started to work with had a very traditional look to them.

The technique starts by taking a natural lacquer that comes from the lacquer tree, which is grown on plantations, so it is a controlled environment. We pull the lacquer from the tree and use it as a base for these panels. This lacquer is laid onto our plywood substrate by hand, and placed on in 19 layers. It takes four days of cure time between each layer. You can imagine the pain-staking process that goes into making something like this, all done by hand, all polished by hand with the actual palm of the hand and water.

For the very top layer we take materials like duck shells or abalone shells, indigenous to the local culture, and inlay them into the material. Our samples here at ICFF have a contemporary look because we have a graphic theme running through our booth this year and our booth designers MSL Productions produced a custom pattern using the lacquer egg shell. Most of the patterns we have seen up till now, and most of the work that has been done, are extremely decorative and very traditional. All the paints and dyes come from crushed minerals, so everything is natural, no chemicals what so ever.

The final product for today is Moss and Lam. Some of you may be familiar with this image [see image of wave wall] which is sort of iconic at this stage. Moss and Lam is an artisan company based in Toronto. This project is the W Hotel and Blue Fin restaurant, it is actually a couple of years old, but it created such an impact, such a trend in the United States with materials that came after it, that we use it as an icon for not just this product but others like it.

Moss and Lam is basically a very traditional artisan company; they work with things like paint, plaster, ceramic, all handmade materials. They recycle everything, because why wouldn’t you? Even their paints are recycled and reused, I asked them what the most interesting things they have ever recycled was and they said they have actually made paintings out of the Tyvek that you would use for FedEx envelopes.

We are talking about the kinds of companies that are using recyclability and energy savings because it makes good business sense.

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