Heroines for the Planet: Robin Wilson, Designer of Healthy Homes with Heart

robin-in-chair

Robin Wilson is a nationally recognized eco-friendly interior designer; her client roster includes the Kennedys and the Clintons , who have both had Robin create gorgeous, green spaces for their families.

Admittedly, I have a personal affinity for Robin: Several years back, when I was first trying to break into the green space, desperately seeking guidance,  she was very kind to me. And she still is.

You always remember people like Robin in your life– the ones who lifted you up in some way when you needed it and helped you out for nothing in return.

Since Robin has been a tireless healthy home advocate, and because she’s an all-around really good person, I couldn’t not interview her for Heroines for the Planet. Here’s our interview.

Lindsay: You first dabbled in design as a young girl in Texas helping your Grandfather (who was in real estate), choose the exterior paint for the houses he owned and rented. Post college, you became an executive recruiter. What inspired you to switch career paths and start interior designing and consulting?

Robin: My entire philosophy about life is “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail.” During my youth, I watched my great grandfather and grandfather and grew up wanting to continue on the entrepreneurial path as a 4th generation member of a family involved in real estate. However, the most important thing for me was to gain a set of skills from corporate roles that would help me continue to grow. At some point, the corporate role of “fitting in and playing the political game” was not working for me – as I saw a lot of people who were unwilling to push the envelope to help a company move forward, because they were afraid to share their ideas which would mean taking a risk in a corporate environment.

As a child, I always loved rearranging my family home, and my grandmother was a housekeeper who taught me how to sew, cook and organize. I have always wanted to do something with real estate, in the design field and in the media. When I started my firm, it was due to an epiphany that I could be both creative and a business person, which would use both hemispheres of my mind. Starting my own firm, having a social media presence and being an interior designer with branded products has met all the requirements.

We are now entering our 12th year as a design firm – with a clear focus on the wellness lifestyle. It has been challenging at best, with a tremendous amount of risk taking at worst.  With a lot of lessons learned and challenges ahead, we are poised to continue work with residential and commercial projects. Our goal is to work with hotels, spas and developers…

LindsayHow and why did environmental issues and the “health” of interiors become so important to you?

Robin: I grew up as an asthma sufferer and “pan-allergic” child (food, pollen, animals, dust) which means that I was hospitalized multiple time in my childhood due to either an external trigger for asthma or eating a food that created an allergic reaction. In addition to an organic diet, my parents took me to a holistic doctor in Austin who gave them a choice: either a child who gets stronger from lifestyle choices or a child who is reliant solely on medicine who will get weaker over time. He told them to get rid of the shag carpet, place our pet outside and rid the house of dust. My mother became a cleaning machine – and they actually remodeled the house to install tile and hardwood flooring.

LindsayThat’s a bold move to leave corporate life and venture out to build your own company. Why were you willing to take such a leap of faith?

Robin: They always say timing is everything! My goal was to become an entrepreneur by age 30. At age 29, the executive search firm I was working for decided to do an IPO, and the stock options which were granted to me were able to vest immediately. I sold all my shares, and used that money to launch my business. In addition, I paid for graduate school at NYU to obtain my Master’s in real estate finance(and this degree is very helpful when working on projects with commercial clients), and was able to start the business with no personal debt and a bit of a financial cushion.

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Lindsay: You’ve pioneered a movement to raise the importance of indoor air quality to millions of people. Why is it such a personal mission for you? 

Robin: Your home is your ecosystem and it starts with what you eat, how you sleep, where you are living, where you are working and all the elements that you bring into those spaces. If the indoor air quality is bad in your home and you spend one-third of your life sleeping, then you will inevitably be a bit sickly. It is critically important to remember that children are most affected by this issue. For example: did you know that vinyl shower curtains are a known off-gassing element for bathrooms? And nylon shower curtains are recommended by many physicians for those who are of reproductive age. For those who have babies, they should also think about the toxins in the air that come from off-gassing of paint, carpets, furniture adhesives and cleaners…it is very important to know that all these elements can form a toxic-soup which could affect respiratory health.

Lindsay: What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And how have you applied it to your life?

Robin: There are five best business pieces of advice ever given:

1.       hire slow, fire quickly if it is not working

2.       limit your credit card debt

3.       treat your client’s home and budget as though it were your own

4.       set your aim high, and fall short – instead of setting it low and meeting the goal

5.       do something nice for yourself everyday

Each of these points has made me focus on my business in a holistic manner. And there have been some people who were placed in my path to teach me a lesson…and I have learned that the key to moving your business (and you!) forward is to “learn the lesson” and move forward…

Lindsay: Will you share a few of the worst sins in the home people often make? 

Robin: Everyone has a quirk that makes their home unique, however I recommend three things that most people could change today to lead an eco-healthier lifestyle:

1.       Remove your shoes when enter the home from outside to limit tracking dirt, pesticides and fecal matter.

2.       Do not let your pet sleep on the bed if you have asthma

3.       Close the toilet lid when you flush to limit the spray onto your toothbrush or face cloth, unless you have a separate water closet room.

Lindsay: Where do you draw inspiration from while working on a project?

Robin: My inspiration comes from the client and asking them the question: “what is your dream space” – and their response to that question will also tell me if their dream is to entertain people, to have a private retreat from the world, to have a child-safe home or to do the final multi-generational renovation of the family home prior to their elder years.  Each client is different, and my goal is to ensure that they love their space when it is done.

Lindsay: Tell me about your new home collection. When will it be in stores? I just moved to a new apartment so I’m in the market for eco home goodness!

Robin:We are thrilled to say that our new textile line will premiere on the Bed, Bath & Beyond website for Holiday 2011. This means that clients will be able to get hypoallergenic products that are stylish and high quality at an affordable price. As well, we are so happy to thank people for supporting our RWH line of cabinetry by Holiday Kitchens (www.holidaykitchens.com) which is sold at 500 independent dealers nationwide. Holiday Kitchens is for clients who care about their indoor air quality, who want to select from over 96 door styles and who care about supporting a made in the USA product.

Lindsay: What is the one thing that you are determined to change in our world?

Robin: We are stewards of the environment for the next generation. I hope that my efforts to use car-sharing, renting a hybrid at the airport counter and limiting my use of processed foods will help maintain a healthy living space and set a strong example for my family.

About Lindsay E. Brown
Lindsay is the Director of Communications at CBS EcoMedia and is a co-owner of Eco-Chick along with Starre Vartan. Previously, she was the managing editor at Eco-Chick, and created the acclaimed interview series “Heroines for the Planet." She has written for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine, Edible, Cottages & Gardens, Huffington Post, EarthHour.org, Livia Firth's Eco-Age.com, Ecover US, Laura Turner Seydel's blog, and Gather Green. Lindsay was featured on the Veria Living Network as a “voice for the planet’s health” and was named in Ecover’s “30 Under 30″ contest which recognized those who are making a sustainable difference in their local or global communities. Lindsay holds a B.S. in Global Business Studies and Marketing from Manhattan College, and received the 2012 Honors Award for Top Student in RW1 at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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