Fish Leather, Anyone?
New sustainable materials are lifting the sails of the mega yacht industry.
Some of you are probably familiar with Peet’s Coffee Shop in Harvard Square.
And if you are, you’ll surely recognize our hero: gangly, slight of build, a composite of windblown sailor
and perpetual grad student.
He’s alone at the back where lavatory traffic becomes most intense, a laptop on his left and a pot of
green tea on his right. He’s got three tabs currently open on his web browser: 1. His Prius owners’
forum, 2. an official-looking word doc regarding Rina’s Green Plus certification awarded his latest
explorer, the 58 meter Summa cum Laude IV, and 3. A Bloomberg analysis of his company’s growing
market share in Asia.
“We’re seeing a new breed of mega yacht owner,” says award-winning naval architect Gregory C.
Marshall of Vancouver, Canada. “These new owners are very conscious about recycling. In fact, on Big
Fish we’ve done away with recycling plastic bottles altogether by installing bottling machines instead –
everyone gets his or her own stainless steel thermos.” [expand]
“Five years ago, folks had some inkling about green, three years ago green was ok if it didn’t cost more
up front, but now owners are willing to pay extra. It’s a fascination, a new energy we’re seeing; a change
in mentality that’s bringing new interest to the entire industry, which, frankly, in the pre-crash days was
The challenge for Marshall and other leading designers is shape this powerful eco-consciousness into
forms that are enduring, useful and beautiful. This means researching, testing, approving thousands of
cutting edge green materials and techniques. After all, if a green “sustainable” product is so difficult to
maintain it’s just going to get tossed, how sustainable is it? Right now, bamboo fabric samples await
closer inspection at architect Luiz de Basto’s studio in Miami. “Bamboo worked well on Flamingo Daze
– there’s now a wide array of crown moldings, veneers and tongue and groove flooring on the market.
And so far, I am impressed by the bamboo fabric; it has a nice texture.”
A former art student at Kent State, Iris Wang wanted to do something practical. In 1990, Wang and her
husband founded a cutting edge ecofriendly firm called Brentano outside Chicago. Its bamboo drapery
fabric is a world’s first.
“After my parents fled the communist revolution, I spent some childhood years in Taiwan. There, I saw
how the Taiwanese used bamboo there for almost everything, eating it, sitting on it as chairs, walking on
it as mats, wearing it as cloth. To make cloth back then they had to be using the ancient method of just
leaving the bamboo outside to rot to expose the fibers. But it must have taken forever.
Brentano’s Silhouette line of bamboo drapery is superior in feel from the more common varieties of
viscose, rayon-like bamboo fibers on the market. She explains that while latter product is indeed the
derived from the same highly sustainable bamboo, its processing into yarn is entirely different, having
been reduced to mush by carbon disulfide. Carbon disulfide is a neurotoxin considered one of the most
dangerous industrial fumes known. In the early days of the 19th century, in fact, rayon mill owners had
to put iron bars on the factory windows because exposed workers were going mad.
Brentano takes a more organic approach to its bamboo: braising it, crushing it, decomposing it, refining
it and re-refining it. The result is a yarn with some miraculous attributes as well as “a nice hand” as de
Basto says: lustrous, moisture-absorbing, micro-organism and sunlight-resisting, the material even acts
as a deodorizer.
The owners of the superyacht explorer Big Fish told Marshall right off the bat: “No teak decks!” M/Y
owners get around a lot – many have witnessed firsthand the utter devastation of the great teak forests
of Indonesia, the rapid disappearance of plants and animals.
“No teak represented a conscious decision that cost the owners quite a lot of money. In its place, we
used granite infused with resin so it won’t stain, and rough cut so you won’t skid. Big Fish has already
gone 22,000 miles from Tahiti to Antarctica and Florida and the granite’s holding up well. We spent a
lot of time trying to figure out how to clean it, however. We figured out the easiest way was to use a
Photovoltaic paints and photovoltaic fabrics are eco innovations Marshall is very excited about. “They’re
a big game changer. You know those jackets that can power your phone? Very soon the technology will
enable us to turn the entire boat into a solar cell. When awnings are out, they’ll not only be providing
shade, they’ll be generating power. And the next generation of glass will have rheostats built in;
you won’t need curtains. As the boat turns to the sun the windows will be smart enough to dim,
thereby lowering the heat load as well as the AC requirements. With LED‘s, by the way, lighting energy
requirements on a forty-five meter, 2000 bulb boat are reduced by an average of thirty kilowatts. Solar-
powered water makers will have a social as well as ecological impact. Plug it in on an island in the South
Pacific where there isn’t much fresh water and you can supply the whole island. ”
Countertop material of recycled junk made to resemble stone can look pretty junky. “But, actually,
any material can look good if used for what it is and not as a fake,” says de Basto. “You have to take
advantage of its characteristics. If you want an all-black surface, for example, you don’t need black
marble. You can use a composite, especially for a single color. It’s only when you want veins running
through the black that you have to have the actual stone.” Resilica, for example, out of the UK has
quirky, light reflecting characteristics marble can’t match. Made of recycled glass, ground and polished
by hand, the resin holding it all together is solvent-free. Who needs to confront off-gassing chemicals
while charging the ocean waves?
No need preaching to the choir at this point.
It’s well known the production and dying of most fabrics relies heavily on toxic flame retardants such as
PDBE’s as well as formaldehyde, arsenic fungicides lace many a “heavenly mattress”, formaldehyde and
polyurethane stewing furniture and pressed wood, with some heavy shakes of arsenic in decking for
good measure. The effect on health of this chemical bath, its adverse impact on immune systems has
been well demonstrated, especially in children.
Paints, lacquers, strippers and cleaners with low to zero VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) are
becoming increasingly available. One interior paint and mosaic palette takes this eco consciousness a
step further. Colorist Barbara Jacobs of Boston recently teamed with Ellen Kennon Full Spectrum Paints
in Saint Francisville, LA to create the Eco-Hues line Eco-Hues has no black or “dead space” mixed in. For
the same reason the Impressionist painters banned black as an abstraction outside of nature, Jacobs’
Eco-Hues is a truer reflection of sun, sky, waves and sand. “Most commercial paints use black to tone
down or mute color; we don’t,” she says, “one of the major advantages for designers are that our color
palette is so easy to integrate because each color is a mix of many.”
Now let us return to Harvard Square where we find our intrepid yachtsman still ensconced at Pete’s.
One neat site appearing on his web browser is Inventables which offers samples of high tech and eco
products for designers to try out. A sampler pack of genuine fish leather skins catches his eye. How
perfect for upholstering the bulkheads of the Summa cum Laude 1V.
Offered in braided, ½ strips of suede, silk, pearlized, and scratch and stain proof glazes, the skins are
“the second strongest skin in the world next to kangaroo,” says Stanley Major of Sea Leather Wear in
Calgary. Along with his carp, salmon and perch inventory, major is selling the intricate fish skin churning,
soaking and vacuum drying technology that enables fish leather makers around the world to render
“Proofs of Odorlessness”. One side benefit for the eco-conscious: the toxic acids and limes used to
remove animal hair in tanning are foregone with fish.
There is, of course, so much more. “Green is evolving very quickly,” says Greg Marshall. The key now
is to get up to speed, find out what’s out there that’s formaldehyde-free, or can power your boat while
shading your guests. Whatever green product you happen to find, resist the temptation to make it fake
something else less sustainable. Be true to its characteristics, as Luiz de Basto says.
Even if it costs extra.[/expand]