Danny Seo: May 11, 2011

Danny Seo: May 11, 2011

Maxwell Ryan
May 31, 2011

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• What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
• May Guest: Danny Seo
• Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Meetup
• Attendance: 262

This month we were greeted to the Meetup once again by Ken Pilot, Executive at ABC Carpet & Home. We learned that ABC Kitchen, the newest restaurant within the ABC family, has just won the "Best New Restaurant in the U.S." award from the James Beard foundation. Bravo! The "farm to table" initiative is making this restaurant a hit with its patrons, and how truly fitting that Danny Seo, environmental lifestyle expert, is here with us tonight to further represent these beliefs.

Tonight we are kicking off a two-day Meetup series, leading up to this weekend's ICFF trade show. This furniture fair is a worldwide event, held right here in NYC. We thought it would be the perfect time to try a double-header.
Before we get to tonight's main event, we'd like to kick off the evening honoring students from Pratt. We have two students who will be presenting their products this evening. We are very honored here at Apartment Therapy to bring new and emerging designers to our readers - please welcome the first presenter, Lara Knutson.

Ann Stepanek, Maxwell and Lara Knutson


Lara Knutson:
• Lighting & Jewelry

I am a recent graduate of Pratt's Masters in Industrial Design program. My jewelry is made of a reflective glass fabric which I created. You can find it in the MoMA store as well as other locations. I give each store a small microscope so that consumers can look closely at the fabric and see the glass.
In this first slide, you can see some of my products and process - the lower right image is a product that was given to the Corning Institute.

In the next slide, you see what looks like a pendant light, but there is actually no light bulb in this pendant. The LED light reflects off the material to make it look like a pendant light. You can also see a rainbow within some of the reflections in the other items. I will be featuring some of this work at a show at The Future Perfect this Saturday from 8-10pm. Please stop by if you get a chance.

Ann Stepanek:
• Lotus Table

I am also a recent graduate of Pratt's Masters in I.D. program. I would like to share with you my Lotus Coffee Table, which is created from three identical wood panels that come together at a 90 degree angles. It is designed to be very easy to assemble, and can be flat-packed for shipping.

In this next slide, you can see a bit of my design process. Sometimes inspiration takes us in different directions - after a visit to a metal extrusion manufacturing facility, I collected some souvenirs (shown on the left) that helped inspire a new direction for the table I was designing. I am working with a company that I found through a competition to get the table manufactured.

Our guest tomorrow evening is a Pratt alum as well, a lot of great designers have come from there. Overall, we're just thrilled to be able to feature up and coming designers, online and offline here at our Meetups. Connecting people with products with people who can manufacture or sell those products is one of our missions. Also, having just come from the Milan show, I've seen how little we do to support design in the U.S., and we hope we can help turn that around with the Apartment Therapy community.


Our guest tonight, Danny Seo, is an environmental lifestyle expert who calls his way of living "Simply Green." His books, tv products, products, and magazine columns make him the leading eco-living designer in the U.S. Born on Earth Day in 1977, Danny started championing for the planet at a young age, founding Earth 2000 with friends on his 12th birthday, and turning it into the country's largest teenage activist charity by the age of 18. His eco-activism has powered his passion to help Americans live a greener lifestyle. Please welcome, Danny Seo.

I met Danny a few years ago at...

Wait, we met way before that! When I was launching the line with JC Penney, Maxwell wrote about the line and said something like, "JC Penney is like the frog that kissed the princess." There were so many comments on that review - many that were not so kind about the line - and eventually the partnership ended. I blame Maxwell for that (kidding of course).

We'll see if some of that changes with the comments we get after tonight's discussion! So, let's go back to the beginning and talk about how you got to where you are right now. You've followed a very nontraditional route into the design world, starting as an eco-activist. Tell us about how you got started.

I was born on Earth Day (April 22nd) in 1977. I think it was some kind of sign. In 1989, at the age of 12 (7th grade), I decided to start an environmental group. Now, at that time, Earth Day was not a celebratory day, there was lots of chaos with the effort. I announced to my Korean parents that I was starting an environmental group, and I was becoming a vegetarian. My mom's response was, "you can't do that, you're a Taurus!" She thought being a vegetarian was an astrological sign! Anyway, another fun fact is that I grew up in Reading, PA, down the street from Jon Gosselin. We grew up together. As you can see, we've followed very different paths.
So I started Earth 2000 with seven friends and $23. By the time I turned 18, we had grown the organization into the largest environmental group for teens in the U.S. We were honored by the White House (the 1st Bush) and, of course, I used that opportunity to actually rally against his administration.

So at 18 years old you're a full-fledged activist.

Yes. And I was very busy running the group. So busy that I had no time for high school. I graduated 169 out of 170 students in my class. This was difficult for my family - my brother (the oldest) was valedictorian of his class, and had a perfect SAT score. My sister (the middle) was Miss Pennsylvania. And here I am, the bottom of my class. Needless to say, I didn't go to college because I didn't get in anywhere. My training was from my organization.

At some point you learned that activism isn't a job. How did that morph into your focus on the home?

I had two significant role models growing up. The first was Jane Goodall - I actually first saw her when she came to Reading to give a lecture. It was $100 per ticket - too much for me - so I waited until the end of the lecture, snuck into the auditorium, and stole her notes. It wasn't until many years later that I officially met her and told her this story. All she had to say was, "that's where those bloody notes went."

My second role model was Martha Stewart. I was not obsessed with her aesthetic, but I was fascinated with the fact that every mom in America loved to hate her, and even with that, she persevered and built her empire.

So you saw her as a bit of a renegade?

I suppose. But to be honest, I was quite ashamed of my interest in her. You have to imagine me, living with hard-core vegans in Washington, D.C. When I eventually got my own place, I didn't have anyone over - I was ashamed at my interest in home design. I hid it from all of my activist friends. I just couldn't tell anyone.
At 18, my parents told me that they wouldn't support me, so I had to figure out how to make a living. I was good at making money so I decided, hey, why don't I write a book? I had started a successful organization, so maybe I could write a primer for other teen eco-activists?

This is when I had my first dumb luck moment. I contacted many book publishers - basically, I wrote to them and my letters went into the slush pile, where correspondence is usually never reviewed. A junior editor happened to be going through the pile and thought my idea sounded interesting, so he called me. Upon hearing more about the idea, Random House gave me a $30,000 advance, so I moved to D.C. to write my book.

Now remember, $30,000 to an 18 year old is a lot of money! I was thrilled. But then I wrote the book, and learned that I had to actually promote it. I gave an interview at my house to a journalist from the Washington Post. I walked her around, showing off my house and the various items in it. I had a lot of DIY items (re-used objects) - for example, I had a church podium that I had dubbed "sacrilegious chic." Anyway, the next day, she called me and asked if she could spend the day with me, to have a "day in the life" of Danny Seo if you will. I thought she was crazy, but of course, I went along with it and didn't think much about it.
At this time I was a volunteer lobbyist for an organization fighting for the redwood forests - really hippie stuff. So I get a call a few days later from one of my colleagues who asked me if I had read the paper. I got out and buy the Washington Post and there I am, full front page, with the tagline, "The Green Martha Stewart." Ahhh! I was outed. And I was horrified.

From there, the story was syndicated in papers across the country. Finally, it makes it out to California and to the L.A. Times. Of course, lots of celebrities saw it. One A-list couple in particular saw the article and contacted me. Now, this was a hugely popular couple at the time (since this is being documented I can't say who, but she was a very "Friend"ly person, I'll just say that). Anyway, I get the call, and what is the first thing I think of? I'm not old enough to rent a car yet. It is L.A. after all! And to put this more in perspective, this is before the mass expansion of Whole Foods, only local organic food chains existed. So this was really at the beginning of the popularity of the eco movement.

I agreed to work for the couple for free. And in actuality, the one and only thing I did for them was to suggest they go to a celebrity event in a hybrid car. I told them it would make a statement. And it did. It was widely covered, and again, my name was in the paper.

This event was a big a-ha moment for me. I realized that I could exploit the power of celebrity to push the eco agenda. It worked for everyone. Although only 5% of my work may be with celebrities, it will get 95% of the publicity.

So let me get this straight - you didn't charge them?

That's right. I work with most celebrities for free. Or, we arrange a type of barter arrangement, more realistically. Listen, these folks know that fame is something they can exploit. So my services are free, and I provide them with my purchase discounts, but in exchange I get them to come to events, market small designers, etc. The benefits are far-reaching.

Okay, so at some point during this time, you hear from Rodale, who wants to work with you. What happened with them?

I didn't know how magazine editors worked. At all. At the time, there was a magazine called "O", then they rebranded it Organic Style. They asked me to work with them, but I really knew nothing about magazines. There was a whole floor in the building that was empty because other magazines had stopped publication, so Maria Rodale and I sat together and figured out what to do with this magazine.

We figured we needed a fashion shoot, and for that, we needed a celebrity. I ran into Todd Oldham on the street one day and asked him participate. We just pulled things together and in some way created a fashion spread. And thus became my second dumb luck moment - working with magazines.
I worked with Organic Style, Country Home, and Elle. I'm now working on producing the 1st decorating story for "Everyday with Rachel Ray."

So magazines, books, product. It's like you know what you believe in, and you've made it work in various mediums.

Although I am not educated, I believe people should be. I've learned in other ways, but it is still very important. We've connected with a lot of good manufacturers to get the product developed. I still feel like an outsider since I've taken an unconventional path - I don't know the rules, which frees me up quite a bit. Take big retailers for example - they are so set in looking at things a certain way, and doing things a certain way. I bring a new perspective to them.

A good example of this is Simmons mattresses. I have a mattress line with Simmons, which is the #2 mattress manufacturer in the world. I decided I wanted to work with them, so I called customer service. I told them I wanted to create a bed for them. They said that someone would call me back. It took many tries, but I did tell them what I had done in the past, and eventually someone talked to me.

I told them that I had ordered a mattress for my country home from an eco-friendly mattress company in California. They shipped the mattress to me UPS, which was their standard way of delivery. Well, it was left at the door when I was away. It was in cardboard, and of course it rained, and eventually the cardboard deteriorated, my mattress slumped over, and got all dirty. I called the company and they didn't care.
So I tell Simmons this story. I tell them that there should be an eco mattress that someone can buy in the store - to be able to go in and touch, feel the product. They told me that they had tried selling a green mattress and it didn't work. So I told them about my link with JC Penney's, and that perhaps I could be the link between them and the retailer. Basically, with this mattress they were catering to 5% of the population that is green 95% of the time. They needed to address the opposite to really sell their mattresses. It should feel like the Heavenly Bed, one of the best selling mattresses of all time. So they did this - and the $100,000 eco mattress business became a $20million mattress business for them.

This year, I'm releasing a "Mattress in a Box" with Simmons. It has a compression chamber which compresses the mattress to the size of a suitcase, so the customer can wheel it home, like a travel suitcase. It takes about four hours for the mattress to open up and take its full shape. And, it's an $1,100 mattress that we are selling for $399. Why? Because we're selling direct to the customer, so there are no slottage fees, or delivery fees, which make up a large portion of a traditional mattress' price. They'll be sold in TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods.


1st Slide: Home on River Road in Bucks County, PA
My house is on the Delaware River and was built in 1912. It used to be fairly quiet along River Road, yet my neighbor is Elizabeth Gilbert ("Eat, Pray, Love" author) so tourist buses full of women now pass by.

2nd Slide: Kitchen Renovation
I have a galley kitchen, with ice stone countertops and Energy Star appliances. All of these photos of my home were from a spread we did in Country Home magazine.

3rd Slide: Living Room
The house feels like a tree house, and has a lot of nooks and crannies.

4th Slide: Front Porch
This image is still used on almost every mood board we do. It just captures a lot of the feeling we're going for in so many things we still do. It's modern country.

Do you still have an affinity for Martha?

I do. In fact, I was thinking about her recently as we're trying to do a reality show. I saw two different cuts from the show - one shows me as "nice", and one shows me as such a jerk. But of course, that's the one that will sell. There are people crying around me, it's crazy! One thing I learned from Martha is that doing this type of thing will make me famous, but I won't be branded well. And that's not something I want to give up.

5th Slide: Country Home in Dark Hollow
I'm about 30 minutes from this house. It's a mid-century modern house that I painted black. It was a huge controversy with the neighbors.

6th Slide: Danny in his Craft Room
I have floor-to-ceiling homosote boards in this room, wrapped in burlap. I highly recommend these to everyone, if you have the space. It allows me to see all of my inspiration images and things that I'm working on at once. One board is all "things I love", and the second is chapters of a new entertaining book that I'm working on.

7th Slide: Living Room with Harry Potter Fireplace
I did a huge eco-renovation to this house when I got it. One thing that attracted me most was something I found from the previous owner. When I was in the living room I looked up and saw all of these balls on the ceiling. I couldn't figure out what they were. Apparently, when the former owner had wine and cheese parties, they would take the wax that the cheese came in, roll it up into a ball and throw it on the ceiling. It's been there ever since.

8th Slide: Fireplace at Night
The owl-shaped andirons came with the house, and I love them. Above on the wall you'll see the painting that I drilled holes in and put LED lights. Very Harry Potter-esque effect.

9th Slide: Before
So now I'm going to show you some before and after images of projects I've worked on. Here's a before.

10th Slide: After
You'll see we added a lot of color. The flooring is faux bois tiling - I actually went down to the Shaw headquarters down south, and found that my first choice of tiling had been discontinued. Who designed it? MarthaStewart.

11th Slide: Kerry Washington's West Hollywood Kitchen (Before)

12th Slide: Kitchen (After)

We added fun, punchy colors. It's very Organic Style magazine. We used 3Form for the backsplash, and the Karbon faucet by Kohler. This was the first time it had been photographed for a magazine spread.

13th Slide: Before (Dining Area)

14th Slide: After

We used JC Penney decorations (as this was a spread focused on using their furnishings). Again, punchy colors, and Kerry loved this $2,000 chandelier she saw at Anthropologie, so I went to Michael's, got some wire, and birds, and put this together for about $30.

15th Slide: Before (Simmons Natural Care Mattress)
She's never home so she really didn't care about what the bedroom looked like.

16th Slide: After
It's a lot more soothing now. I remember this was featured on Apartment Therapy, and this room got some really mean comments. I don't think people realized I had to shop at Penney's for this makeover. Someone even asked if Kerry is disabled because of the stairs next to the bed (which are for her dog).

17th Slide: Before

18th Slide: After
We were testing Trove wallpaper here. This was a great story for InStyle about "10 ways to make your home eco".

19th Slide: Before (Closet)

20th Slide: After

Everything's not always eco - for example, we bought a lot of plastic containers and such to organize the closet.

21st Slide: Book 7, "Upcycling"

This is based on a series I do with Kathie Lee and Hoda. We take everyday objects and elevate them to something greater.

22nd Slide: Oriental Bear-Skin
Here, we took a generic oriental rug and cut it into a "bear skin" rug. It took three steps, that's it. Every project in the book, in fact, takes three steps.

23rd Slide: Wine Cork Bath Mat
This is great because it's antimicrobial. I bought a shadow box from Michael's, along with 700 wine corks. And yes, everyone always asks where to get all of these wine corks. You can go to any local wine store and ask them, they're always throwing out tons of corks.

24th Slide: Outdoor table, inspired by the Barney's Store in Las Vegas

25th Slide: Patron Bottles
To make these candles, you get a refill kit from Lowe's for the lighter fluid. Candles (step 2). And then the bottles. So to come up with this idea we had a lot of trial and error. We needed 100 empty Patron bottles. I have this soccer mom who works with me in Bucks County. She's great. She's a shopper, and is a perfect person for this type of work. I told her we needed 100 empty Patron bottles, and she went around to Mexican restaurants to collect them. She put them in several large, clear bags in her car, and of course, what do you know, she gets pulled over that day for speeding.

26th Slide: Tennis Ball Swing
Tennis balls, nylon string, and then you need to punch a hole in each ball. That's it.

28th Slide: Beauty Line

I'm really excited about the beauty line. It's very different than doing a home line. Originally I was going to be the spokesperson for another eco beauty line. I was told I would be made the spokesperson and get equity in the company, instead of payment. I turned it down. Three months later the company sold for $3B. So, I created my own line. It's certified USDA Organic. Instead of using parabens, I tapped into my Korean heritage and decided to extract the enzyme that is created during the pickling process in making kimchi. The packaging is black and is 100% post-consumer recycled material.

29th Slide: Beds, Towels, Dishware
This line is launching in 4,000 stores. TJ Maxx, Home Goods, Marshalls.


I'm curious to hear more about your relationship with the celebrity couple you worked with in Los Angeles - what else did you do for them?

Actually, the only thing I ended up doing with that particular couple was suggesting they drive a Prius to an event. That's it. But it got more press coverage than we would have ever imagined. This was one of my "a-ha" moments - realizing the power of leveraging celebrity to make a statement and get your beliefs noticed.
What is your favorite celebrity story?

I have a lot of favorite celebrity stories, but I know we're being filmed! Come find me later if you want to hear about them.

I'm very impressed by how you've approached your career, taking risks and following unusual paths. Where do you get your confidence?

I learned a lot as an activist. I was running a business as a teenager and had to learn how to do that (pre-internet). For example, I went to the library to research how to start a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Basically, coming to everything as an outsider, in a way, with no preconceived notions or formal training or education on how to do things, allows me to see them a bit differently.

I was really interested in working with Michael's, the crafts store. I basically stalked them for nine months, calling customer service, asking to speak with people about my ideas, etc. I kept getting rejected. My agent at CAA at the time said Michael's is past and to get over it, but I didn't agree. Eventually, I found out that one of the marketing people was going to be in NYC (via his Twitter feed). I told him I'd be happy to introduce him to some of the editors I worked with, and from there we got to talking, etc. Now I'm creating product lines for them, as well as other things.

With Michael's, they were very hesitant to work with someone because celebrities kept coming to them saying they would endorse them for $1million. I did the exact opposite - I said I'd work for free if they would give me shelf space to sell my product.That, in addition to a social media presence. These are ideas that most business people would never dream of doing.

As a fellow Taurus (also born on April 22nd) I'd love to know how you are able to balance our strong characteristics, if you will.

Yes, our stubborn side. It's tough. People are actually surprised that I don't have an Assistant, but it goes back to this trait - I have to be at the center of things, in control, but surround myself with people who know how to do their job. I interact with over 300 people a week; 50 salespeople, 6 stylists, 12 photographers, to name a few. The one thing I know is that when it stops being fun, I have to slow down. For example, we thought of doing a cookware line, but I hate cooking! It would have been lucrative, but it just didn't make sense, so we pulled it. Slowing down and taking time off are very important to me, and I take it very seriously. No phone. No email.

How much vacation do you usually take each year?

Not sure, probably around 4 weeks or so.
Hearing your story, from your teenage years on, how one thing lead to another - I'd like to know what you think it is that draws people to you?

It sounds easy from our discussion, but believe me, there has been a lot of friction along the way. I didn't tell you about when I sold a book to Judith Regan, and she cancelled at the last minute. We had shot it, spent a fortune on photographers, and it was all for nothing. I've been fired by celebrity clients, magazines have folded. A lot has happened. But one of my strengths is that I can look at a situation and see the opportunity in it, as well as how it can be marketed to the mass audience. And that is a huge strength that I've taken advantage of.

An example of this is when I was in the Simmons mattress store. I saw a mattress in a box, hidden away in the corner, and asked someone about it. They said that they really don't sell very many, but when I asked a bit more about it, I learned that they just didn't like empowering people to make their own decisions about buying a mattress - it turns their whole selling philosophy on its head. When I started working with TJ Maxx and other retailers, I thought it would be a good relationship to encourage. Thus, the soon-to-be-released mattress-in-a-box that I was talking about earlier tonight.

I was at a tech conference many years ago, and Marc Andreessen (Netscape co-founder) was on stage. He said that when he's listening to a pitch, he always asks, "What's your distribution plan?" It's so important, and so many people don't take it into consideration at the start.

It's true. When our Whole Earth beauty line launched, I realized how hard the beauty market is. Distribution is a lot easier in other markets. I would just love if ABC decided to carry our line!
For Whole Earth, I brought it to Fred Segal in L.A. I told everyone that they were carrying our line (via social media, etc.). Then ShopNBC got a hold of it and started selling it. We sold $50 worth of product at Fred Segal, and over $1million on ShopNBC.

I am a friend of Lara (one of the student presenters). I hear your story and think about Lara, her drive and passion. She came to me a few years ago with this fiber that she had created. It was amazing, and she's done so much to market it and get it out there. I'm also not a traditionally- educated person, and I do agree that there's a spirit there when you work a little bit outside of that tradition. I just wanted to thank you for being here with us tonight and sharing your passion - it's very inspiring.

That's a great note to end on. Thank you, and thank you everyone for joining us this evening.

~ Congratulations to Angela Blocker, who won a full set of Danny Seo's Whole Earth beauty line! ~

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Cambria Bold and Gabriel Sperber!
• Images: Herma Ryan, Danny Seo

Thank you to our sponsors!

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!

Thanks to our new wine sponsor, Abigail Adams Wines!

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