Senses of Living® Décor

Autumn 2008
© 2008 by Bret S. Beall


I’m disgusted. I’m fed up with every media outlet proclaiming “green” options for home décor when, in fact, they are not espousing green options. How are you, the consumer, to decide what is green and what isn’t, and how can you green your décor every day, and during the upcoming holidays? It’s easy!

I hate to repeat myself, but to be green, you do NOT have to buy things. The absolutely greenest thing you can do is to re-use things that you currently own, or to shop at resale/thrift shops and use items you find there. Let me share some recent activities in my own life, and how they are green.


When I moved into the current Casa Beall in 1995, I was relocating from a 600 square foot, one-bedroom apartment to a 1600 square foot, two-bedroom apartment with a huge kitchen, formal dining room, living room and solarium. I desperately needed furniture! With the exception of buying a new futon for the guest suite, every piece of furniture that has gone into Casa Beall is reused from the previous Casa Beall, which in turn mostly included reused items from my parents’ home, or it came from a thrift store, an antique shop, a yard sale, or a gift from friends.

One such gift from a friend required a lot of time this past summer. In 1995, I had bought a dining room table with four chairs and matching buffet and china cabinet at a resale shop. It served me well, and I had no need to replace it. However, one weekend a friend hosted an estate sale of her mother’s belongings after her mother moved into an assisted living facility. I attended, and admired a mid-century modern dining room set with six chairs and matching china hutch. Just my style, but despite the excellent price, I just couldn’t imagine taking the time to switch out this new set with the old. The following Monday, my friend called to say that the sale had not gone so well, and that if I could move the furniture I had admired, it was mine for the taking. I couldn’t pass up a deal like that! So, I arranged for movers, and spent a great deal of time clearing out the very full china hutch (and all of the contents had to be moved to other rooms, because the dining room was going to be the site of great commotion during the move). But, the effort was worthwhile, and the mid-century modern dining room table and matching china cabinet look great in my dining room. My friend later gave me a matching buffet, which required moving more contents to allow for the new piece; she also gave me a mid-century chest of drawers, which required rearranging the guest suite (which doubles as my research library, and that rearrangement has spawned a huge project of purging books and research files … more time sinks!).

Lesson: Reuse as much as you can, to keep materials out of landfills, and to avoid exploiting new resources.


When the movers delivered the “new” dining room table and hutch, I had to get rid of the old dining room table and hutch. I just donated the pieces to the resale shop for which the movers worked (interesting “complete circle” event: They delivered my old furniture to the very same resale shop where I had bought them in 1995! Now THAT is really reusing!).

Recently, a neighbor moved out of my building. To prepare for the move, she started purging 30 years’ of personal belongings. Sadly, I discovered she was simply discarding most of these belongings in the building’s dumpster. One time, I was taking trash out to the dumpster, and saw that she had tossed a shadow-box with Phantom of the Opera memorabilia; I know there are many people who would have loved to own this shadow-box, but now it’s landfill. She later dumped flower pots, cooking equipment, bed linens and other items that could have been donated to a nearby resale shop (less than a mile away), increasing the likelihood that they’d find new homes rather than ending up as landfill! I rescued the flower pots, and felt bad that I didn’t have time to rescue everything else.

Lesson: donate what you don’t want any more; one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. I know! I have found many treasures that once belonged to other people!


Above, I mentioned how my old dining room set had served me well. Truly, while it wasn’t a perfect fit for my décor scheme, it was good enough, and I had used its unique qualities to inspire other décor decisions that tied the entire room together. Specifically, the chairs and china cabinet had wicker detailing; I used that to inspire wall hangings of Southeast Asian basketry (from resale shops), and used that Southeast Asian theme to inspire additional décor decisions in the form of Thai temple rubbings (from a thrift store) and various Asian ceramics and metalwork (also from thrift stores) and oriental rugs on the floors (from yard sales). I eventually moved a bookcase into one corner of the room, and moved my large collection of Asian cookbooks into it; virtually all of my cookbooks are resale finds. The key is that while the dining room set wasn’t perfect, I eventually made it perfect, and there was no need for me to dispose of it. If you become “bored” with your décor, either seek counseling to determine if you have something missing in your life, or be mindful about donating what you get rid of. The fewer items you dispose of, the less need there is to use additional natural resources to replace them. Use your belongings (including your décor choices) as long as you can.

Lesson: Don’t arbitrarily dispose of belongings; this saves natural resources and reduces landfill (and gives you free time to accomplish great acts for yourself and for society).

If, as I mentioned above, you are “bored” with your current décor, there are easy ways to add freshness to your décor. One of those ways is via paint. Here, there are many earth-friendly options available to reduce toxic outgassing and unnecessary disposal of toxic leftovers. I’m not going to recommend any particular brands, but you can visit any hardware store or paint shop or even look online to identify green, earth-friendly products.

Another way is to “switch out” accessories. Move décor items from one room to another. If you have items in storage, bring them out. Visit a thrift store and buy some accessories to complement what you already have. These little changes will help to alleviate any boredom you have.

Lesson: Keep your décor changes simple. You don’t have to do a complete overhaul or gut rehab. Start simple, and add on, always using environmentally approved products.


Sometimes, the best thing you can do to enhance your décor is a good, thorough cleaning! I know it really enhances Casa Beall! Straighten up clutter. Toss and recycle paper debris. Dust everything using launderable rags. Then there’s washing and scrubbing! We are often told by the various media that we need to use specific brands of “green cleaners” to be earth-friendly. WRONG! You can clean everything with water, biodegradable soap, vinegar and baking soda, plus a good dose of elbow grease. Soap and water will clean almost everything; if you are concerned about disinfecting something, vinegar has some disinfectant properties. Do you have mildew and hardwater stains? Scrub everything with moistened baking soda (it’s abrasive but gentle), and then wipe down with a vinegar-soaked towel. Are those hardwater deposits resistant? Soak them with a towel moistened with vinegar for as long as you need, and repeat as often as you need to. Are your shower curtains nasty? I take mine down and wash them in the washing machine with baking soda based detergent, and then air dry them, often right in the bathtub after hanging them on the hooks. Do you have dirty windows? Vinegar and newspaper are a great combination for cleaning windows and mirrors, and you can recycle the newspaper after it dries. That brings me to the topic of paper towels. They are convenient, and yes, I do use them, but mostly as a hygienic aid for storing food products. For cleaning purposes, I have a better solution. I do consulting in a downtown Chicago office. Paper towels are everywhere. We use the restroom, and then wash our hands, and then grab paper towels to dry our hands. But we’ve already cleaned our hands, so only clean water is going onto the paper towels. I don’t toss those towels into the trash; I save them, dry them, and use them to clean up kitty ick, or clean up an oily spill, or to soak up grease and oil on things I’ve cooked (like bacon); I also reuse the paper towels I’ve used to hygienically store food products, either to store more food products, or as cleaning towels. These practices reduce what goes into landfills, and reduce the need for new items; reusing paper towels is greener, even if the paper towels you buy are from recycled paper; recycling takes energy and involves a variety of contaminants that we don’t need if we re-use other paper toweling.

Why am I counseling against using “earth-friendly” marketed products? Well, recently, one famous company had to change their formula because their previous formula was found to be hazardous. Many of these so-called “earth-friendly” products are not tested, and their marketing claims are unfounded. Many of them use new resources, and sometimes unnecessary chemicals. This is not earth-friendly! Use what our grandparents used, and you’ll be healthier and happier!

Lesson: Use biodegradable materials to clean your home, and consider that cleaning to be one of the best things you can do to brighten your décor.


The holidays are upon us, and I’m reading everything that we should “Buy this” and “Buy that” in order to be “green.” DON’T DO IT!

Lights: Which is greener? 1) Using the holiday lights I already own, 2) buying used holiday lights at a resale shop, or 3) buying brand new LED lights to use for the holidays? The correct answer is 1) or 2), because you are using lights already in existence that don’t require the use of new natural materials. Sure, the new LED lights may use less energy, but that is only one axis measuring earth-friendliness. What about the plastic that is needed for those new lights? And the glass? And the metallic components? All of these have to be produced from natural materials, and unless we NEED new lights, there’s no reason to replace our old lights, or to not buy lights already existence and available in a resale shops. When those old lights no longer function, THEN buy earth-friendly lights, but not until then. And when your old lights no longer function, recycle them to the best of your ability. Recycling takes a lot of energy, but by using the lights as long as you can, you reduce the need to use that recycling energy before it is needed.

Trees: Many people enjoy holiday trees, whether Christians or pagans or some other group that just enjoys the holiday cheer. How do you make the tree choice greener? First, consider buying a tree with bound roots, keeping those roots moist through the holiday season, and then planting the tree in your yard. Secondly, if you buy a cut tree, try to buy an organic one, and then either turn in the tree for mulching after the holidays, or deliver it to a service that uses trees for fish rearing (placing used holiday trees in a river or lake gives small fish a place to hide or reproduce). Thirdly, decorate some pre-existing object in your home instead of a tree; I’ve written in a previous holiday décor column that I have a large African carving in my living room that is adorned with holiday lights; that’s my focal holiday décor. Decorate your trees with family heirlooms and handmade decorations, or buy holiday decorations at resale shops, or buy ornaments that support worthy causes, like building third-world economies.

Greenery: Many people like to use evergreen boughs as holiday décor. Seek out organic greenery. Such evergreens are attractive, and are renewable and reusable when they are treated as mulch around outdoor plants (this is why organic greenery is important). They will conserve water, and eventually decompose and add their organic compounds to the soil that will in turn feed the plants nearby.

Cards: For years, I used the holiday season to send cards and a Yule letter to keep in touch with friends and share my year’s happenings; those cards were always bought at resale shops at great discounts. I stopped sending cards after 2004. That decision was more related to time constraints than to greening intention, but the effect was the same: I added less paper to landfills, and I required fewer natural resources to be used or recycled. That said, this year I’m sending out the final Yule letter, because people who are not on my GOD-DESS e-newsletter list don’t know why I’m no longer sending out my Yule letter, and I need to provide them with information, and to provide closure for myself. You can turn special cards that you receive into tree decorations, mantle decorations, and gift cards for packages.

Candles: Whether for your menorah or Christmas décor or Kwanzaa celebration, candles should be beeswax-based and hopefully organic. When beeswax burns, it produces minimally toxic smoke. Of course, any smoke has carcinogenic components, so you might reconsider the use of candles in your holiday décor if you have a choice. If you are using candles in a menorah or for Kwanzaa, you don’t have THAT choice, so use beeswax candles to have the least impact on the environment.

Gift Wrapping, Packing and Ribbons: Gifts are a part of every holiday celebration. Reusable gift bags are a great solution for packaging presents; they can be reused year after year. Ribbons can be carefully removed from packages, and reused for other packages, or used on your holiday trees or as other holiday décor by being turned into bows or holiday chains or other creative holiday décor ideas. Use non-metallic gift wrapping, just simple plain paper that can be recycled, and further enhance that recyclability by using a minimum of tape on your packages; tape cannot be recycled. Give gifts in packages that have other uses: food storage containers, jewelry boxes, wooden boxes, or anything else that you might find that can have a second life. Or, give a non-tangible gift like a donation to a charity or other cause that the RECIPIENT would appreciate (ie, not YOUR favorite cause!). You can consider envelopes for a gift certificate, but since that encourages buying more things, I’m unsure that would really be a green alternative.

Tablescapes: Some of the simplest and greenest holiday decorations are tablescapes. This year I’ve gone really green. For Thanksgiving, I set up a vignette at the end of the long dining room table mentioned above that consisted of some robust Dracaena cuttings (gift of the former neighbor mentioned above when she moved) in glass vases, a glass bowl, and several white bowls. To tie everything (including the placemats) together, I added red, green and gold apples: I put some of the apples into short and tall glass vases (one is three feet tall!), I put others into the glass bowl mentioned above, and still others went into the white bowls and dishes. For the winter holidays, I’ve added reused ribbons from previous years’ gifts that pick up the hues of the apples. The apples will eventually find their way into cobblers and tarts and my delicious Alsatian apples!

After reading all of these hints for both general décor and for holiday décor, and paying attention to the explicit lessons I have offered, I hope you can see just how easy it is to decorate your home and still be as green, as environmentally-sensitive, as earth-friendly as possible. If you have a club, organization, or company that could benefit from a presentation on these topics, let me now. I’m available for speaking gigs anywhere, and would love to share these messages with your audience. Just reach out to me at bret@god-dess.com or 773.508.9208, and we’ll set up a speaking engagement tailored specifically for your people. I’m also able to provide you with written articles on these topics. I look forward to hearing from you.