Designer Ami McKay on Eco-Furniture and Healthy Home Decor

Ami McKay was designing eco-friendly decor before it became fashionable

Ami McKay stresses healthy home design that’s good for you and the environment

Before the words green or eco-friendly became mainstream, Ami McKay’s pioneering spirit led her 
down a pathway to designing healthier homes

Vancouver designer Ami McKay only began her interior design career a decade ago, but she’s already accomplished numerous things including consulting on an interior decor project, creating a prototype for a piece of eco-furniture, fielding interview requests from magazines, including Oprah and Flare, and speaking nationally about healthy design.

On Managing a Powerful Public Presence

Q: Why do you feel that you’ve had so much recognition in the past two years, from being featured in magazines to winning the Woman of Distinction Award?

A: Wonderful things simply keep happening. The award was for my furniture design company, launched three years ago. Richmond MLA Linda Reid had bought a piece of furniture from me and, without my knowing, nominated me. One of my bathroom designs is in an upcoming issue of Woman’s Day magazine because they contacted me out of the blue. It may be because designers purchasing my furniture have blogged about it (in addition to magazine blogs from Vanity Fair and Style at Home). 

I also have a strong network of mentors through an organization called Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives. It’s a profoundly helpful program in which members meet each week to hear top business women share their expertise. I cannot stress enough how much has come from this experience. Whereas others always told me that I couldn’t do it all and had to focus on one thing, these mentors inspired me to do it all and “go big or go home.” I’m currently managing my own design projects, continuing interior design, expanding the furniture company, and developing new products, a book, and media initiatives.

Q: What was it like to co-host HGTV’s Makeover Wish (featuring a $25,000 home makeover that deserving Canadians won through nomination) for two seasons? 

A: It was a compassionate, rewarding job to be able to do something special for those not financially able. I went into their home, sleuthed out who they are, and then tried to express my perceptions of who they are through design. Their gratitude was moving, and the design aspect was fulfilling because I had a great deal of creative freedom to completely transform a space within a couple of weeks – not possible in real life when working in collaboration with clients during a longer timeframe.

It’s usually more about their wishes and personality, not mine! That said, I was amazed how many times the owners would ask me later, “How did you know?” whether it was a lighting fixture that they’d admired earlier, but couldn’t afford, or a painting chosen that reminded them of a special memory. 

On Understanding Healthy Home Design

Q: You stress healthy home design. What does that mean?

A: To me it means a home free of chemical air pollutants that off-gas from mainstream products. We don’t usually know that the items we buy for our home are toxic. Sofas and cabinets are the top two air-polluters in a home. As a designer, I make sure that kitchen counters, cabinets, flooring and paint don’t off-gas formaldehyde and many other chemicals. 

Q: What inspired PURE, your eco-furniture line? 

A: Since I wanted to design healthy homes, I often had to custom-design furniture to go into them because it wasn’t available elsewhere. I decided to fill that market gap. I currently design beds, sofas and chairs. I will be expanding the line to include housewares, such as bedding. The furniture’s wood is locally grown and cut wherever the furniture is made (such as fast-growing alder from B.C.), or it’s FSC-certified. All stains and glues are non-toxic. Since conventional cushion and mattress foam is usually the most toxic part of the furniture, PURE uses only natural latex rubber foam. It is a green product taken from long-existing rubber plantations in Asia. When the very fast-growing tree no longer produces rubber (after about 10 years), the wood is used to make furniture. 

Q: Is it more expensive?

A: It is expensive, but worth it since you sleep on your bed one third of your life and sit on your furniture for hours, and each time you add your weight to it, it off-gasses fire retardants and other chemicals that you breathe and that are stored in your body. Soy foam, a less expensive option, is not environmental because, since it is blended with synthetics, its chemical makeup never breaks down, making it even less biodegradable than a pure synthetic (which biodegrades eventually). 

The fabrics used are comfortable, durable and sustainable pure cotton, linen and wool. PURE is manufactured the way that furniture was made in the 1960s, before harsh glues and synthetics were used. It is a quality piece that lasts, and that you will eventually have to reupholster as an heirloom. 

The design and prototypes take a long, expensive process, which is reflected in the price. It is sold through designers and architects and is also available at stores in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, New York and North Carolina, and on the website. 

How the Design Career Began

Q: You travelled extensively at an early age. How did that influence you?

A: I read artist Emily Carr’s book Klee Wyck when I was 15, and it was inspirational – we all need a pivotal role model – and she was mine. She moved me so much that I was determined to live an exciting life, and in my 20s, I travelled to 21 countries by myself on adventures that included volunteering in rural India, living in a mountainous forest fire watchtower, and going to school in England. I knew that others in my hometown of Fort Erie, Ontario, weren’t like me. 

Q: What did you do before you were an interior designer?

A: I was in production design, floral design and costume design. I still make my two boys high-quality costumes for Halloween!

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.