by Beth Marino
Furtniture designer :: el:Environmental Language
As a child, Jill Salisbury spent summers visiting her grandfather, a carpenter and children's furniture maker who lived in Emporia, Kansas. She came to love the smell of the newly cut walnut and oak in his workshop, her first exposure to the joy of craftsmanship. She proudly recalls the year she learned to wield a hammer—1974—when she helped her grandfather build the family's new home in Elgin and nailed the subflooring to the joists of her own bedroom.
Years later, Salisbury went on to get a degree from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Chicago. But it wasn't until 2000, when she attended a workshop with the Charlottesville, Virginia-based author, architect, and sustainable design standard-bearer William McDonough, that her understanding of good design expanded to include the words "eco-friendly" and "well-being." "Well-being is the result of the choices consumers make that are ultimately good for them—as well as the environment," she explains today.
A year after that McDonough workshop, Salisbury, 41, founded el:Environmental Language, a high-end, sustainable furniture enterprise that was "green" before the word became a coveted designation. Getting started, she struggled to find manufacturing partners (within a 500-mile radius of Chicago) who would let her help rethink the way they were making furniture. Salisbury also had to contend with lukewarm responses when she talked about "environmentally friendly" furniture. "Eyes would glaze over," Salisbury remembers. So she adopted the phrase "eco-chic" to describe her designs, such as clean-lined sofas stuffed with wool and petroleum-free natural latex foam. "You don't have to compromise style for substance. You can have both," Salisbury says.
At Salisbury's Barrington-based headquarters, conventional materials are replaced by natural, nontoxic substances such as varnishes made from tree sap and smooth, pearly inlays made from tagua nuts. She continues to innovate as demand swells and recently started a line of kitchen cabinetry made from leftover leather scraps from the shoe industry. One day, Salisbury says, she would love to design children's furniture. Her creations would be eco-friendly, of course, but they would also take inspiration from the pintsize pieces that emerged from her grandfather's workshop, smelling of new wood and possibilities.
Photograph: Anna Knott