Living room with large Sabai Seven sectional sofa with throw pillows, sisal rug, wood square coffee table, large windows
Credit: Sabai

Design Changemakers 2023: Phantila Phataraprasit Has a Whole New Take on Sustainable Furniture

published Feb 14, 2023
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Credit: Photography: Sabai

Apartment Therapy’s 2023 Design Changemakers are all about evolving their industries, from architecture to carpentry, curation to interior design. They’re doers. They’re disruptors. They’re total risk-takers. And you’ll want to get to know them stat.

Who: Phantila Phataraprasit, CEO of Sabai, a sustainable furniture company
Where to follow her: Instagram at

When Phantila Phataraprasit and her business partner, Caitlin Ellen, hatched the plan for their furniture company, Sabai, in 2016, they had zero experience in the furniture industry. Recent Columbia University graduates who’d studied law and film, respectively, the women were motivated by their own experiences as consumers: They wanted to buy sustainable furniture, but they couldn’t find any that fit their budget, and they knew that society couldn’t afford more fast furniture. “We send over 12 million tons of furniture waste to landfills every year,” says Phataraprasit.

Using that first seed of frustration as inspiration, Phataraprasit, together with Ellen, created high-quality, sustainable furniture people can afford — and what sets the brand apart is its willingness to experiment. Phataraprasit has spearheaded new programs that push the envelope on sustainability and circularity, under the banner of what she calls the Sabai Standard. “We’re designing the products from the onset so that they are easily repairable,” she says of the company’s flat-packed designs, for which you can easily order replacement parts. Likewise, if a piece no longer suits your lifestyle, Sabai will facilitate resale to keep their products out of the landfill.

In 2021, Phataraprasit’s efforts garnered her an invitation to join the board of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, a nonprofit coalition of manufacturers, retailers, and designers dedicated to sustainable practices in the home furnishings industry. Now, this budding entrepreneur is bringing her big ideas — and eco-minded changes — to the industry at large. 

Credit: Sabai

Apartment Therapy: Tell me how, when, and why you got started doing what you’re doing. What inspired you? 

Phantila Phataraprasit: My partner, Caitlin, and I are part of a demographic that cares about our impact on the environment and ethical supply chains. We were trying to live more thoughtfully and oriented to those values — whether that was in the way we ate or how we purchased clothing. But when it came to furnishing our own apartments as young professionals, we found that it was really difficult to do. We both appreciated and loved design, but we were still constrained by budget. Of course there were sustainable products out there in the furniture industry, but they tended to be more high-end, more bespoke, and just not very accessible. We wanted to bridge that gap and create furniture that people like us were looking for. 

AT: What would you say sets Sabai apart from your peers? What’s different about what you’re doing?

PP: What sets us apart is the focus on sustainability at our core. We’re looking at everything from our materials to our manufacturing and from our shipping to the product’s end of life. An example is Sabai Revive, our resale program, which we launched in January of 2021. To limit the amount that our products go to landfills, we’re taking responsibility and offering our customers a solution that allows them to resell products instead of throwing them away. 

We’re doing the hard things, even though we’re still figuring them out ourselves. We might not be perfect from the onset, but we’re actively going after our goals and not waiting until there’s an easy solution out there and someone else is doing it.

We’re also trying out new materials, prototyping with a lot of materials that aren’t necessarily used in the furniture space yet. Sustainability is woven into our day-to-day operations, product development, and I think that’s what’s going to continue to put us at the forefront of sustainability in the industry.

AT: Is there a specific piece, design, project of yours, or aspect of your business that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

PP: Our project line is still limited, but the seating line really speaks to what we’re trying to do in terms of products that are timeless and simple, but have that playfulness through the different fabrics.

AT: What were your design inspirations growing up? 

PP: I’ve always been someone who has appreciated design. I grew up in Thailand and some of my family there work in the furniture space, so I had been exposed to a lot of that, including furniture that incorporated a lot of natural materials. In terms of sustainability, my mother runs an eco lodge, so I grew up thinking through how to incorporate natural materials and ethical supply chains into a business — that was definitely ingrained in me as well.

Credit: Sabai

AT: What is your inspiration now? 

PP: I find materials to be very fun. Since joining the Sustainable Furnishings Council board, I’ve been introduced to a lot of really exciting people in the materials space, like Jonsara Ruth, who’s the director of the Healthy Material Lab at Parsons and is on the board with me; she has a finger on the pulse of what’s new. Staying connected with people who also care a lot about sustainable materials and are always excited to talk and problem solve around this has been very inspiring. 

AT: Who do you look up to?

PP: When it comes to the furniture space, I look up to individual pieces that I feel like have been able to really hold up over time — ones that are really timeless and lasting. I’m not a product designer, but I know how difficult that is. To a consumer it seems so simple, like, ‘Let’s just design a good table.’ But it is really difficult. So, when I see products that have been able to withstand time and continue to really seem modern, that is what I look up to. In particular, I love Florence Knoll’s work: It’s really beautiful, and it was modern but timeless at the same time. I think that there’s also a warmth to her work as well. Her work is very inspirational to me.

AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2022, and why?

PP: The City Table was a really fun project. It was the first entrance into a new type of product for us — a full departure from an upholstered product. We went after a whole different supply chain [and] built that out, which was really exciting. 

AT: Zooming out, where do you see the design world heading in 2023? Do you have any predictions?

PP: I think people are craving pieces that are more home-y and that have more character to them. There’s a whole wave of secondhand furniture and vintage products that help bring that element of a lived-in aesthetic that people are looking for. I think new products are going to have to bridge that gap. I think customers are definitely becoming more and more intentional with their purchases. They want to make sure that they feel good about the purchases that they make. 

Credit: Sabai

AT: What impact do you think that Sabai has made? What changes do you hope to create?

PP: We are a young company, but we did these things that a lot of people in the industry were talking about for a while. Like, ‘We should be able to repair products or make it easier for people to do that. We should make it easier for people to resell.’ But they just hadn’t really done it. So just going out and doing those things, I think that is pushing the industry forward and pushing the standard for how companies think about their responsibilities further. Being asked to join the board of the Sustainable Furnishings Council was very exciting. It showed me that people recognize the impact that we’re making.

On the community side, we recently launched our community on Geneva [a free messaging app for groups and clubs]. We’ve seen with our customers that the world of sustainable living can be really overwhelming and disheartening sometimes. We’re creating a community that makes things more comforting, digestible, and approachable. So we’ve created this Geneva community around not just looping in people to what’s coming out, but actually getting their input on things that we’re working on. Our community is also sharing tips with each other on how to live more sustainably, like different products that we’ve found that are good sustainable swaps or that make life easier. 

AT: What will make you feel like Sabai is a success?

PP: I don’t want us to be wasteful. I definitely don’t want to be putting more waste out into the world. All the work that we’re putting into creating these products, all the materials, all the development, if that isn’t bringing people joy, that’s waste in another way. So, I think success for me is to be able to create products that bring people joy, meet their needs and values, make their lives easier, and make them feel more at home in their own spaces.

AT: What makes you feel at home in your space?

PP: Having things around my home that have warm memories associated with home. Because my family’s all in Thailand and I’m the only one in the U.S., I like seeing things that are from Thailand or remind me of my family or friends. Having memories sprinkled throughout my home is what makes me feel good in my space. 

Interview has been edited and condensed.