David Oakey Designs David (left) and Cindi Oakey run the LaGrange, Ga.-based studio David Oakey Designs.

Atlanta-based carpet maker Interface’s quest to turn its petroleum-intensive manufacturing process into one that captures and re-purposes waste didn’t happen overnight—or without help. Since the company publicly shifted course to greening its supply chain more than two decades ago, it’s worked with local design duo David and Cindi Oakey to match the sustainability ethos of its products with design that could sell in a competitive market. The partnership has resulted in collections like Human Nature, which is made of 100-percent recycled-content nylon yarn and offers a surface that brings natural patterns, such as pebbles and grass, indoors. On display at the NeoCon tradeshow this week in Chicago was the Oakeys' latest collaborations with Interface, Equal Measure and Near and Far. Both are made entirely of nylon yarn sourced from reclaimed fishing nets and draw inspiration from the simplicity of Danish design, the neutral colors of sand and driftwood, and the rugged textures of stone and brick. ARCHITECT caught up with the Oakeys during the event to learn how they channel elements of nature to enliven interiors.

Describe your approach to product design.
David: Nature has no right angles, no squares. The big difference between interiors, which are artificial environments, and the outdoors is that the outdoors changes from morning to night, from season to season. There is constant change. In our interiors, we want static. We guarantee that a carpet will last 15 years, for example; the colors stay the same. We need to think of the psychological effects of how color should be used, how pattern should be used. We often make decisions based on how we feel when we see [an interior finish] for the first time. 

Our source is waste, whether you like it or not. I’ve got to make it look natural, in color and design, and also stay in the recycled loop. The product comes from recycled material and when it’s finished, it will continue in the loop.

Interface The Equal Measure collection for Interface.

You do most of your work today for Interface, which has a strong sustainability ethos. How do you layer those principles with design elements like color, pattern, and texture?

David: All of the products at Interface use 100-percent waste, including waste carpet and fishing nets. For Interface, the biggest issue was greening the supply chain. It doesn’t make any difference how green you think you want to be if you cannot get suppliers to give you [recycled materials]. We’re all in this together as an industry, as a community. It’s all interconnected.

Cindi: In the beginning, you had black, charcoal, and a few ranges of beige for color. And the first products were only about 15-percent recycled content.

David: You took six colors, made a beautiful product, and just did it. We kept doing it and doing it and we increased volume. I would have never dreamt, even 10 years ago, that we would be making product with 100-percent waste. [Going forward] we need to be able to design products that either separate easily or are made from one [material]. There are no cut-outs when nature makes a leaf or petals. It grows the shape, and it grows using all the same material. Three-dimensional printing is a very bio-mimetic process. One day we will be 3D printing floor covers and furniture locally with no waste.

Have you explored concepts for this fabrication method?
David: Last year we brought engineering students from Auburn University to our studio and asked them to design flooring to be produced using a 3D printer. It had to have bio-mimetic inspiration. They looked at bone structure, leaf structure, how shape changes acoustics, ways to create softness and brittleness, and how a product may have different parts. They were making small segments for us. We work with interns because manufacturers are saying, "That’s too far out. We’re not going to invest in that." So I go to colleges and universities and say, "OK, this is the future. Let’s start working with it," and it’s really exciting.

Cindi: Their thinking isn’t restricted by profits, what’s really possible, or what customers think. They just get out there and explore.

Interface The Near and Far collection for Interface.

What’s your advice for designers talking with large corporations about sustainability?

David: Pay attention to the bottom line. Start there and you will make a lot of headway. Give them examples of reducing, reusing, and recycling their industrial waste. Whether you’re designing a tennis shoe or a carpet, the same principles are there: reduce, reuse, and start to recycle. If you try to jump all the way into what you think will be [the final result], sometimes it fails. Taking smaller steps in an evolution seems to work in making the jump.

Cindi: And no matter how sustainable the content, it has to be good design and still sell. 

David: About five years ago, I got to the point of saying I didn’t want to talk about green design any more. I said, "Let me just design beautiful product. If it’s got 100-percent recycled yarn, if somebody in [a place like] Portland [Oregon] thinks that’s important, that’s good. But if somebody is anywhere else, they’re just going to buy the product." So make [sustainability] the DNA of what you’re doing. We measure our progress each year by how many products have 100-percent waste compared to last year. It’s a simple measurement that Interface will give us.

Based on the work you’ve done and what you’ve seen in the industry, what do you think the commercial office will look like in 10 years?
David: We’ll be closer to the outdoors. Technology will play a huge role in creating color and design that can actually change how you feel from morning to night. Imagine a space where the air condition and lighting change as you move through it—dynamic glass, sensors. The big word for all of those things is diversity.

Note: This Q+A has been edited and condensed for clarity.