Topher Paterno moved to Northwest Washington last May after living in California for nearly 18 years.
Despite having a thriving West Coast career as a designer, builder and teacher, being the founder of the LA Box Collective (a group of furniture makers committed to environmentally conscious design and production) and living just two blocks from the beach, he says it was an easy choice.
“It was for family,” says Paterno. He and his wife, Annie, had just had their first child, and they wanted him to grow up near family. Annie’s parents live in the District; four of Paterno’s nine siblings live in Virginia.
Once settled on the East Coast, Paterno, 42, wasted no time setting up shop. He established a new company, Pazzo Verde, an eco-sensitive design, building and consulting company; he is showing his design work at 52 O Street Studios; and he’s almost single-handedly doing a complete, eco-friendly renovation of a 1920s rowhouse in the Northwest neighborhood of Burleith.
Paterno refers to himself as a craftsman and an educator, and he’s earned the cred to prove it: certification as a LEED green associate and a master of fine arts in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design. He says he gets as much enjoyment out of designing custom furniture as he does helping someone build a piece themselves.
“It’s seeing someone use something they’ve just put their heart and soul into making and having them understand and appreciate the process of what went into making it.”
A self-proclaimed “materials junkie,” Paterno said his ideal job would be digging through a client’s house demolition to reclaim materials and use them to create a custom piece for their home.
“I’m always rescuing things out of the trash to give them a second life,” he says.
One of the goals of his career, says Paterno, is to demystify eco-friendly living and get more people thinking about being green. And he offers a compelling comeback for those who think green design is merely a passing trend.
“True green design is smart design because it saves money and resources,” he says. “And smart design will never be a fad.”
We recently spoke to Paterno while he was waiting for a coat of finish to dry on a rocking chair. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
D.C. vs. L.A. design scenes: D.C. is a little more traditional and a little more conservative, but it’s not exclusionary to new ideas. In L.A., everyone is looking for a new idea, and there’s a lot more modern design.
Shopping locally: I look everywhere for inspiration, but I love to cruise through thrift stores, garage sales and the stores along 14th Street. I’m never looking for anything specific, just well-crafted, unique pieces. Even if I don’t like the piece, if it’s put together well and well-thought-out, it resonates with me.
Eco-conscious misconception: When people say green design doesn’t fit within their lifestyle. It can fit into any lifestyle; they just don’t know what’s out there. I spent the better part of my career finding what’s out there and what’s possible. If someone asks me, “Can I get green X?,” the answer is always going to be yes.
Go-to gifts: I love to give things I’ve made, like furniture, jewelry. . . . I made my wedding ring. Gifts are so personal. Giving something I made means more, and it’s one of a kind.
Favorite object: I have his little stool that was given to me as a gift a long time ago from a very dear friend. It’s made out of bicycle parts, all from the wheels. It’s just a dirty, rotten little stool, but I’ve had it for so long, it’s one of a kind and someone made it for me, so it’s meaningful. I use it all the time.
Biggest indulgence: My 1970 red Volkswagen camper van. I’ve had it for almost 20 years. I would love to turn it into an electric vehicle. And I want my 2-year-old son, Bruno, to drive it one day.
If you had an unlimited budget, you would build: A campaign to try to educate consumers and manufacturers about the responsibilities of our choices, in design and everyday products. I’d also build a shop and a second house by the beach.
What’s next: I’d like to put together a D.C. version of the LA Box Collective, which is artisan-based, and I’m also looking to put together a crew of environmentally conscious tradesmen, which is building-based. They will be my “Green Team.”
Easy way to be green: Get the book “How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants That Purify Your Home or Office.” It’s a list of houseplants that take toxins out of the air and give back all sorts of goodness. And become aware of your daily choices. For example, if you’re going to replace an area rug, start your search within the green arena. Once you make yourself aware, you’ll see opportunities everywhere.
Living Well is a series about Washingtonians who live stylishly. Join a live chat with Topher Paterno on Thursday at 11 a.m.
Past interviews from Living Well: