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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Furnature: Making Homes Healthier and More Beautiful

Aug 27, 2013 10:59PM ● By Kim Childs

Barry Shapiro, co-founder of Furnature, in Watertown, comes from a family that has been making custom furniture in the Boston area since 1927. Nearly 25 years ago, Shapiro opened Furnature after a friend’s extreme chemical sensitivities made him realize that beds, sofas and chairs could actually make people sick. This led him to begin designing comfortable, healthy furniture using organic, non-toxic materials. Natural Awakenings asked Shapiro to share more about Furnature’s history and practices.

How did a family friend trigger the launch of Furnature?

My wife’s friend had an immune system that was severely compromised due to pesticide exposure. She had to get rid of practically everything in her home, and she asked if we could make some custom upholstered furniture that she could tolerate. We also did some testing, exposing her to all the individual ingredients in furniture. We tested wood, fabrics, metal, stains and a host of other ingredients and came to find that the solution for her was organic cotton batting, which went in the cushions and body of her sofa to make it comfortable. We actually had to find a manufacturer to make this organic cotton batting, as it hadn’t been done before. They had to close down and meticulously clean the plant to prepare for our order.

What kinds of problematic ingredients do you look for?

Most regular or what we call mainstream furniture includes polyurethane, commonly referred to as foam, which is an oil-based product with all kinds of chemical ingredients and flame retardants. When it comes to the wood frames, a lot of the glues that are used are full of chemicals, and most of the stains would not be suitable for anyone with chemical sensitivities. All of the barriers that keep the soft materials inside the furniture are made of synthetic textiles, and I could go on and on. Springs are about the only things that are non-aromatic, or inert, and they won’t bother anyone unless they’ve been treated with oil.

What about the wood itself?

We had to do all kinds of research to find wood that would work. Oak and pine, which are most often used in furniture, create their own natural chemicals that people with sensitivities cannot tolerate. For instance, oak has tannins and pine has resin that’s used to make turpentine and there are a lot of people who cannot tolerate pine. We use hard rock maple, which was proven to be tolerable to most people, including the customer who started us on this path. We also found a special kind of leather, used by some car manufacturers, that doesn’t seem to bother people with sensitivities.

Twenty-five years later, are more people aware that their ailments could be triggered by furniture in the home?

Absolutely. We probably get a dozen calls every day from people who realized that their new sofa, mattress, recliner or sectional was making them sick. They may have symptoms like itchy and runny eyes, a cough or irritated throat, or rashes, dizziness and headaches. In severe cases, their airway may even start to close. They figure out that the new furniture is to blame because the symptoms appear soon after the items arrive.

How do you make your bedding flame retardant without using chemicals?

We wrap everything in organic wool, which is naturally flame retardant because it smothers the fire. It can also be used to cover furniture that’s off-gassing chemicals and causing problems for people. In fact, customers from all over the world send us their upholstered chairs, sofas, rocking chairs and footstools for this very reason. We repair the item, glue it together with healthy glues that you could actually drink, and use water-based stains that are safe and well tolerated by most people.

What excites you about this business?

When the idea came to us, it was an opportunity to do something different and good. It’s what has kept my career going because it’s a really good feeling to know that you can create furniture for someone’s home that is comfortable, healthy and looks great. The designer in me gets to have fun, too. Recently we made some enormous pillows out of shredded natural rubber that kids really enjoy. I love contemporary furniture, and I get the chance to share my ideas with clients, which is always fun.

Location: 86 Coolidge Ave., Watertown. For more information, call 617-926-0111 or visit