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Comfort with a conscience

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Suzanne C. Ryan
Globe Staff / May 22, 2008

Don't get Barry Shapiro started about all of the so-called "green" furniture in the marketplace today.

Sure, a lot of the fabrics are organic, the Watertown furniture designer concedes, but what about the cushions underneath the fabric? Or the wooden frames? Or the stain on the wood?

"And is the fabric sprayed with stain repellent?" he asks. "That defeats the whole purpose."

Shapiro knows green because he's a pioneer in the industry. He and his cousin Fred Shapiro founded Furnature, an organic furniture and bedding company, in 1994 - long before the mainstream made it a fad.

"We're making furniture today like my dad did 90 years ago. Everything is chemical free, and it's custom-made," said Fred Shapiro, whose father immigrated to Boston from Russia in 1920 with his brother (Barry's grandfather). Separately, the brothers established mattress and upholstery/custom furniture companies in Brighton and South Boston. They combined the companies in 1988.

Furnature, based in Watertown, designs custom-made couches, chairs, ottomans, and bed frames for eco-conscious consumers and interior designers. The products are made with certified organic fabric and non-aromatic domestic maple (so there's no scent and resources aren't spent shipping lumber). The wood is also certified as "sustainable" meaning when it's harvested, new trees are planted and not every tree in an area is chopped down.

The company also uses low- or no-volatile organic compound wood stain.

Furnature sells organic mattresses with natural rubber cores or steel coils with no chemical coatings. The padding over the springs is certified organic cotton. Wool is placed over that as a flame retardant (instead of a chemical spray).

The box springs have no synthetic glues, dyes, or finishing sprays on them. Its comforters, blankets, and other bedding are also all natural.

The company was born unexpectedly, after the cousins received a desperate phone call from a chemically sensitive woman from Belmont in 1993. The woman was allergic to all of the furniture she came in contact with. "She couldn't get comfortable," said Fred. "Anything she brought in the house she reacted to."

The cousins agreed to make her organic furniture, an unfamiliar concept back then. "It took about a year. She rejected most of the ingredients we tried," said Fred. "Finally we made a sofa out of organic cotton with a hardwood maple frame. For six months, she called us every morning crying. She could finally be comfortable."

Barry and Fred thought that was the end of it. "It was just a custom piece of furniture," said Barry.

But the customer posted her story in an Internet chat room for chemically sensitive people. Calls started coming in from all over the world. "We got orders from England, France, Canada, Israel," said Barry. "Nobody else was doing this. A lightbulb went off."

Today, Furnature's customers aren't just chemically sensitive but also eco-sensitive. Consumers and interior designers send pictures to Furnature of couches, chairs, or bed frames that they want created chemical free. Customers also visit Furnature's tiny showroom in Watertown, which is located inside the non-organic Freddy Farkel's Fabric Outlet.

Once Barry receives the furniture pictures, he sketches his own version. "I capture the spirit of it," he said. "But I might add different legs or change the arms."

Customers can choose from hundreds of natural materials, including organic cotton, wool, hemp, and bamboo. The furniture is made in factories in Holyoke or Conover, N.C.

Looking forward, Barry resists the idea of opening organic retail stores anytime soon. "Right now our products are in specialty stores in various parts of the country, although not in Massachusetts," he said.

"We like working with designers and the mills to develop fabrics," he said. "We're developing our own brand of organic mattress, too. We are trying to mass manufacture for retail stores."

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