Interviewed by: Maha Mamish | GFDA Member and Contributor

Being the principal of your own design firm can involve a lot of asks. That’s why making the decision to take on not just what is essential, but also new, more aspirational initiatives is key to being a leader.

In this interview, we sit with one such leader, Caleb Anderson, a partner to Jamie Drake in their NY-based AD100 firm Drake/Anderson, to ask him about his journey into healthier practices around waste and sustainability. Not only has Caleb spearheaded a total sustainable overhaul at the firm, but he also launched in 2022 his own mission-driven company, well-designed an organization dedicated to re-envisioning the interior design industry through the lens of wellness, human authenticity, community, and planetary harmony.


You were named partner and future successor to Jamie Drake’s eponymous firm Drake Design in 2015, still at a relatively young age. Did you go in already knowing you had a vision to expand on his legacy into sustainable design paradigms? Was that something that was discussed going into the partnership?

Actually, not at the start. I was always personally invested in mindful designing, but it was not a big conversation with our clients at the time nor a priority from the get go. My connection to sustainability was really born later out of a personal wellness journey and, in learning to take better care of myself, a connection to a different value set if you will. It started informing who I am and informing my work, but it wasn’t something that I was completely clear on how to do or how to approach. I took a continuing education course through Parson’s Healthy Materials Lab, and it really lit a fire under me. Then it kept growing from there. Like a lot of people in this new realm it’s getting on board for the journey and then recognizing that there’s opportunity for everyone- any firm, any type of design- to pull these values into focus and use increasing awareness to take actionable steps.

How would you personally define what waste reduction means in your practice, from a holistic vantage point?

In the broadest sense, it really comes down to myself, the team and our clients to all be inside the question together: questions like where does this come from, what’s it made out of, and what happens to it when we’re done using it? It starts with the simple questions that we just aren’t used to asking in the industry. I believe part of being a good leader is bringing that level of care and awareness to something to initiate a collective shift in baseline thinking.

I’m so fortunate to have an amazing team who also genuinely cares and is excited about being more intentional. I think of it like little momentary interruptions which build on each other. For example, our process for a long time involved printing a gajillion tear sheets for review in order to come down to a final selection. Now we don’t really do that at all. Instead we work on screens, move things around digitally, type notes, etcetera. We also started working with a composting service in our office. Our in-house consultant is working on how to better approach installations to mitigate what is traditionally an immense amount of waste. And of course there’s the design itself. There are many considerations, but it starts with mindset. The office-wide mindset here is holistic.

“Sustainability is built on an understanding of a value system that we are all connected to one another and this planet.”

How has working with a sustainability and materials expert at the firm helped you make better decisions?

When I started stepping into this I understood that I’m not the expert and that I needed one to help me. Their role is so layered and involved. One of the main things they’ve done is help us create a healthy materials library with a labeling system, vetting our existing materials and vendors, as well as incoming ones. So now we have the healthy materials labeled and then everything else for when we are tied to meeting another level of criteria.

Then there’s the educational piece, so informational sessions, trainings and workshops. Our digital resource list includes both specification information as well as broader educational information. The consultant has helped us evaluate our processes- both how we internally work and how we do design. Sometimes they act as a liaison with fabricators, workrooms and contractors. Often these are people who have been making things for us for years and our expert engages them on how they can make things differently for us or even suggest how to elevate their offerings to be more sustainable generally. I think that’s a wonderful thing about design: it’s an ecosystem. Changes that you make in your office can become changes that not only have an impact on your client, but also can have a domino effect beyond your projects resulting in broader outcomes that are pretty extraordinary.

In all the new knowledge you acquired, what were some of the things that surprised you most about the impact of wasteful practices in the design industry?

So many things. For example, coming into awareness around things we were using frequently and even pushing to clients such as performance fabrics which I realized were notoriously toxic, and that was pretty sobering. Then there’s the deeper understandings. For example, just because something is recyclable that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy or that it has a good life cycle, hence nullifying the supposed benefits. So it involves coming to an understanding that you have to really get into all the layers of a product and its implications from micro to macro. But what is beautiful to realize is how in alignment this is with how we should be living anyways as humans. Having that approach with our planet, all our natural systems, and mirroring the regeneration designed into it is where humanity is headed, period. To think that we can come to understand the myriad of connection points and emulate that through an interior design project is pretty powerful all the way around.

How do you think the various obstacles to surmount the challenge, such as insufficient education, lack of resources, or resistance to change on the part of both designers and clients is factoring into how you approach change? Are there other barriers in your opinion?

This is such an interesting question. In my experience clients, once engaged on the topic, even though they may not be coming to Drake/Anderson for sustainability or healthy materials per se, appreciate and fully understand the issues. We haven’t been able to reorient every project or client this way but it’s a dialogue that always happens during the preparation and organization phase in how things are presented or conveyed, married with my passion. People tend to get on board when you’re passionate about something, so I think that that’s a big part of it. The industry in general possesses a disconnect between the information available versus our connection to it. I actually did a presentation recently and that’s the main thing I highlighted as hindering our ability to make real progress. Until you feel within why it’s important to you, it’s not a big driver or a genuine priority. What I’m passionate about and what I’m doing in my work is fostering an experience that allows for these issues to land for you as a human being, not just as a client. That’s my goal.  Because when you finally feel that, you want nothing else.

What’s the achievement you’re most proud of thus far in evolving the narrative of healthier design practices?

I love the enthusiasm from the team. Initiatives like this are only successful if people get behind them.  Connecting to purpose and tapping into that energy is what pushes progress and innovation.  It’s a journey and I am proud to see the team embrace healthier design as a path forward.  It isn’t always perfect but the discovery along the way has given a broader meaning to the work we do.

What’s your goal or endgame in all of this and how long do you see it taking to get there?

The endgame/vision is less about me and more about our industry, and beyond that our planet.  If I can play a role in pushing progress forward in a way that influences my immediate sphere, I know the downstream effect is significant. The seemingly small choices and decisions I am trying to make everyday are powerful when combined with others who put forth similar effort.  My hope is that one day design and sustainability are completely synonymous.

How is the work you’re doing with your own mission-driven organization well-designed dovetailing with the evolving story of circular thinking at Drake/Anderson?

I believe the greatest challenge we have with sustainability is our human connection to the concept.  There is so much information, so many studies, products etc., but we are still spinning and dancing around our priorities.  At the end of the day, sustainability is built on an understanding of a value system that we are all connected to one another and this planet.  Well-designed is intentional about educating the design community on sustainability, but more importantly it fosters connection and provides experiences that elicit an “aha” in a way that provides an understanding that is not only known, but felt.

Written by: Maha Mamish | GFDA Member and Contributor. Mamish is a growth strategist, educator, and promoter for creative brands embracing excellence, innovation, and sustainable frameworks. A graduate from Sotheby’s London in European Decorative Arts & Design, she launched her career in NYC specializing in sales and strategic business development for best-in-class luxury design brands over the last 20 years, and now focuses on helping entrepreneurs expand cutting-edge ideas rooted in circular-thinking. 

Next up in Part 4, an interview with designer turned materials expert & consultant Chris Youssef on all things innovation and where the state of the healthy materials industry is in relation, specifically, to the current need for accessible, better material choices with the design community.

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