While we devote a lot of thought and money to the pieces we bring into our home, many companies spend less time considering what furniture they provide for employees. And yet those employees will spend 90,000 hours of their lives at work over the course of their lifetimes, or fully one third of their lives, by one count. Work tables, sofas, and lighting that are thoughtfully designed and manufactured can go a long way to improving our quality of life.
According to research cited in a report from the Center for Environmental Health, the 22-year-old public health nonprofit, a whopping 85% of couches (in an analysis of 102 models) contained flame retardants that are toxic or questionable. In the CEH’s report, Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out of the Office, created in partnership HDR Architecture, the group lists office furniture makers that have removed toxic flame retardants from their products. The nonprofit says that companies like Yahoo! and Kaiser Permanente have pledged not to buy office furniture and products that use flame retardants, which are linked to serious health problems, including cancer, obesity, and reproductive difficulties. These chemicals are so ubiquitous that 97% of Americans and 100% of infants tested were found to have traces of these toxins in their blood, urine, breast milk, and infant cord blood.
As consumer awareness of this issue grows, one furniture maker is putting the issue at the forefront of its product line. The Sage Collection, a new line of office furniture made by high-end British company Benchmark, is made with traceable materials certified by third parties to be free of harmful chemicals.
Benchmark tapped New York-based architect David Rockwell to design these pieces—a partnership that makes a lot of sense, because the Rockwell Group often creates sets for theatrical productions, which actually, it turns out, have a lot in common with office furniture. Furniture for plays must be easy to move and reconfigure from one performance to the next; this kind of adaptability is valuable in office furniture as well. The line—which starts at about $2,000—features several desks that can be easily converted from a sitting desk to a standing one with the push of a button, and sideboards on the tables can be used as either a privacy divider or a storage unit. Meeting tables are designed to work equally well as dining tables.
But perhaps more importantly, all of the materials used in this collection have been certified by WELL, an organization that verifies that buildings and everything inside them, including furniture, enhance the health of inhabitants (WELL was also recently honored as a 2019 Most Innovative Company). Side tables are made of oak and sycamore. The sofas are covered in wool fabric, rather than synthetics. Space dividers are made from wool felt and cork, rather than plastic-based cloth and fillers. They’ve also been evaluated by Declare, which traces the sourcing of furniture, where it is manufactured, its expected lifetime, and its recyclability.
There’s a growing awareness about the problems associated with flame retardants, stain repellants, and antimicrobial treatments used in furniture and product design, but while we can control the furniture we bring into our homes, most of us have less say over the furniture in our offices.
The Sage Collection retails for thousands of dollars, making it unaffordable to most. But it is a reminder to companies that it is worth investing in office furniture that is both beautiful and functional, but that also doesn’t harm their employees. If Benchmark is out of your price range, there are other furniture brands, including Crate & Barrel, Ikea, and Williams-Sonoma, that sell some nontoxic pieces in their collections.