Blue, Red, Purple And Green All Over

Studio Eg's eco-kind workstations are easy on the eye, too

The tabletops sport eye-catching shades of cranberry, gold, and green. The workstation fronts have gentle, inviting curves. But the first time most people see the EcoWork line of office furniture from Studio Eg, it's the table legs that prompt a double take. They're made of ultraheavy-gauge spiral cardboard carpet tubes--the same kind that designer Erez Steinberg rescued from a garbage pile two years ago as he strolled through the grungy Oakland (Calif.) industrial district that houses his studio. Both amazed at the strength of the tubes and dismayed by the waste of throwing them away, Steinberg figured out how to incorporate the tubes into functional and attractive designs.

For the Israeli-born Steinberg, 34, and his wife and business partner Gia Sullo, 31, a graphic designer, the past several years have been filled with such bursts of inspiration. Today, Steinberg and Sullo are pioneering a clever niche in the crowded, $10 billion office-furniture market that is dominated by the likes of SteelCase Inc. and Haworth Inc.

Their edge: designing hip office furniture that uses recycled, organic, and "recovered" materials, from carpet rolls and newspapers to old tires and wheat chaff. Offering an array of workstations, tables, and shelving, Studio Eg has managed to grow tenfold in each of its two years of existence, thanks in large part to its furniture's appeal to a slew of multimedia and Internet companies, such as Imagine Publishing in Brisbane, Calif., and Sausalito (Calif.)'s Cybereps Inc. Cybereps President Ted Welch says EcoWork workstations are garnering kudos from customers, employees, and prospective hires alike. "They have a progressive, Internet look and feel," he says.

DESIGN FIRST. Last year, Eg scored a coup by winning an order from New York's MTV Studios. Now, Eg is looking to broaden its appeal further by meeting with more architects and facilities planners and by contacting furniture distributors to sell EcoWork products to the home-office market.

Mention recycled furniture and many people, particularly baby boomers, conjure up images of old World War II surplus desks or nicked and scarred cubicle panels--really just secondhand goods. But EcoWork represents something else entirely: distinct, modern design using an array of environmentally friendly materials. Steinberg, who considers himself a designer first and an environmentalist second, has been captivated since his student days by the properties of "green" materials, such as plastic compounds tinted with organic dyes and recycled PVC (polyvinyl chloride) from old tires. He crafted his first EcoWork setup in 1995 for a small San Francisco multimedia outfit, Pineapple. Word spread like cyberfire, and customers started calling him. Then, a 1996 mention in Wired magazine elicited hundreds of calls and many new customers, including MTV.

Steinberg and Sullo subsequently hired two employees, contracted with a local company to do their manufacturing, and have since shipped a couple thousand workstation units, which typically include a desktop, shelves, and sound-absorbing panels. The units sell for $1,400 apiece--about the same price as a conventional workstation. But since many of the materials used in their designs are less expensive than virgin products, that means bigger profits.

Eg can't afford to sell single units yet because of prohibitive shipping costs, but Steinberg hopes that will change once they get into office-furniture stores.

Virtually every component in the EcoWork line has an interesting story. Take the cardboard carpet-tube legs, which Steinberg initially just attached to table tops made from nontoxic laminate surfaces. Although the legs looked cool, the paper began to unravel on some of them, so now Steinberg paints the legs with a bright glaze and dips the tips in recycled PVC rubber. That sealant prevents the legs from peeling or absorbing moisture but doesn't obscure the cardboard's spiral pattern. Increasingly, Steinberg is making conference-table tops from wheat chaff, a harvesting byproduct that is compressed and glued into "wheatboard." Black rubber strips made from old tires create a clean, pliable edging for his table tops.

"Green" office furniture is so new on the scene that marketing data are scant. However, the Washington-based nonprofit outfit Green Seal, which helps consumers choose environmentally friendly products, recently surveyed 30 office-furniture makers. It found that so far, only Studio Eg offers a full line of "green" office products, but more manufacturers are using some recycled plastic and biodegradable fabrics, as well as designating that certain woods aren't cut from rain forests.

VISUAL VACATION. Furniture-design consultants note that EcoWork fits right in with the trend of designing for talented, creative, youthful employees who value cool office spaces. At Brisbane (Calif.)'s Imagine Publishing, which produces magazines such as Mac Addict, Boot, and PC Gamer, Steinberg's brightly colored EcoWork workstations complement the publisher's lime-green-and-blue walls. Imagine's facilities manager, Jill Culver, finds EcoWork's furniture both comfortable and visually appealing. The curved tops on the sound panels "look like a mountain range," she says.

Durability was Kristine L. Riemer's biggest concern. Riemer, the project manager for planning and design at Manhattan's hyperkinetic MTV Networks, purchased several dozen EcoWork units for the staff, who tend to be very young--and hell on furniture. "They write on walls, they put stickers on absolutely everything. They jump, stand, and dance on workstations," says Riemer. But a year later, EcoWork's furniture is doing fine.

Studio Eg also does some planning and space design for its clients, and Sullo has a graphic-design consultancy which incorporates the use of recycled papers. But Steinberg says that building EcoWork is their top priority. As workstation cubicles become ever-more ubiquitous in the workplace, he just might have a selling point--office furniture that can be both politically correct and a pleasure to behold.