Designing with Purpose

Karen Kalmek, founder and owner of Chicago-based Green Home Chicago Design Center, admits there are many shades of green and she embraces them all. Constantly learning about eco-friendly and design-forward furniture, accessories and home improvement offerings, Kalmek educates those interested in incorporating more green options into their homes, offices and buildings.

“One of the easiest ways to improve the air quality in your home is through paint,” Kalmek notes. Paint is something that gets Kalmek excited because she sees how much “greenwashing” exists around it. “There is a lot of toxicity in paints and a lot of talk recommending people seek out low- or no-VOC paint,” says Kalmek. “But the real danger isn’t in the base paint. It’s the chemicals used to make the tinted paint that are dangerous, especially when you don’t have proper ventilation,” she adds. This is why she recommends that people dig deeper to go beyond the claims made by clever marketers and seek out the advice of professionals.

Walking through Green Home Chicago Design Center wouldn’t give the impression that everything is eco-friendly though, and that is done by design, explains Kalmek, who stops short of calling herself a tree-hugger. “I didn’t come into this from an environmentalist point of view,” she says. “I came to this field as a conduit for new job creation. I was a counselor before Karen Kalmekthis and I’m an artist who loves beautiful things. The environment and new product creation is a wonderful connector.”

She uses an original 10-point scale when choosing products that will be displayed on her shop’s floor. Each product must meet at least one of the points on the scale, although many cover several. After it passes the point test, Kalmek scrutinizes it for beauty and its performance. “If I can show unique and interesting things and with all else being equal, people will choose the eco-friendly option,” Kalmek says.

She bristles at the notion that eco-friendly products mean they are higher in price. Although it isn’t true, she says, she also makes a point that rather than buying something cheap, consumers should buy quality that lasts.

Changing out accessories such as pillows and throws is one easy and inexpensive way to keep existing furniture and change the look. To go even further, customers may replace the fabric color or design for an entirely new look.

There aren’t many furniture lines that are really green, according to Kalmek. Aside from the look of the piece, shoppers should Green Home Chicago Design Centermake sure to ask about the content of the cushioning, a prime area for toxic components. Looking for organic fabric is another way of lessening the toxic elements of a piece of furniture.

Kalmek has begun designing and exporting materials to the Middle East and is looking to expand that part of her business in the coming months. She often works with interior designers and architects on designing custom furniture pieces.

Whether she’s working with a new client, choosing kitchen cabinets, or on developing a new furniture line, Kalmek considers herself an educator as much as a business owner. “I’m not preachy, and we all come into this from a different perspective,” she says. “Whether it’s something small or someone wants to go all-out, we are not the green police! We want to be a resource to help people create what they want. Anything they are doing is a step in making a positive contribution to the planet, and that’s a great thing.”

Green Home Chicago Design Center is located at 213 N. Morgan St., Ste. 1D, Chicago. For more information, call 312-432-9400 or visit

Megy Karydes is a professional writer who tries to hug as many trees as possible. Connect with her at

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