John Bruce is living in a material world. But he’s no cone-chested pop star — he’s a green designer. A green designer who, during the course of an hour-long conversation, speaks excitedly about various eco-building materials, professing his love for natural clay plaster and calling sunflower-seed-based particle board “super beautiful.” He even credits his love of such materials for being his “official gateway into sustainability.”

John Bruce.

Courtesy EcoZone Media

Bruce has introduced many of these eco-gems to the consumers he works with through his design firm Super-Interesting. But he’s brought them into millions more homes across the country (and abroad) via his role on TLC’s surprise-design series While You Were Out and, more recently, The EcoZone Project, which focuses on greening celebrity abodes.

Before being cast on While You Were Out four years ago, Bruce had worked as an art director for several feature films. He says he never really planned to be on the other side of the camera, claiming, “I don’t have a ‘look at me’ gene in my body.” Even now, he considers himself more eco-advocate than eco-celeb, and is currently pursuing an M.B.A. in sustainable design at Washington’s Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

During our chat, Bruce questioned hypocritical celebs and the “eco-Nazis” who finger-point at them, explained why EcoZone Project is nothing like MTV Cribs, and laid out his plans for the future.


What got you interested in sustainability issues?

I became conscious of it about five years ago. But when I look back at most of the things that I’ve been involved with professionally and personally, I’ve realized that sustainability had been really just a part of my philosophical makeup and perspective.

It didn’t have a name.

Right. You meet some like-minded folks, and there are actual tangible organizations and evidence in the world that these thoughts are gaining traction and having a positive effect — and it has a name — it’s a wonderful feeling. The rate of growth and proverbial snowball, if you will, of sustainability gaining traction has just been enormous and exciting and even, at times, scary.

It was during While You Were Out that I actually started to introduce sustainable ideas — first through green materials. The producers of the show were gracious enough to give me a very wide berth, and half the time they weren’t even paying very close attention to the things I was doing. That’s where it sort of began.

As you started bringing in more of these green materials, did you find that the producers started paying attention?

Bruce’s Best:
Green Design Materials
Walls

Lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an organization working on sustainable forest management

American Clay, a reusable, non-toxic plaster made from natural clay

Homasote, fiberboard made from recycled paper and newspaper pulp

Zero-VOC paints, free of the volatile organic compounds that cause low-level toxic emissions

Flooring

Modular carpet tiles from Interface Flor, a leader in carpet recycling

PLA, Interface’s biodegradable carpet product made from corn-derived polylactic acid

Cork, generally comes from well managed plantations, harvesting doesn’t harm trees

Décor

Kirei, a wood substitute made from reclaimed sorghum stalk

Dakota Burl, a wood substitute made from compressed sunflower-seed hulls

Environment Furniture, made from reclaimed wood

Cisco, sustainable upholstered furniture

I made sure that when I was introducing these green and sustainable materials on television, I made them exciting. I really showcased them and made sure that they were being used properly and their applications were smart and it was a choice that would make sense for people instead of something that is unattainable or not durable or is going to be way out of the general consumer’s price point. Communication is a very big part of it, so I needed to sell [the producers] the same way I knew that on television I was selling the audience.

How did you get involved in The EcoZone Project?

It was the idea of a company called Ecomedia, who is not a television player; they are actually a sustainable marketing company that has decided to communicate about sustainability [in part] through a television program.

I was very honored and lucky to work with some great folks like [TV personality] Daisy Fuentes … who played the “every-person” role … Simran Sethi, who is a fantastic journalist and eco-advocate, and Ryan Sutter, who actually has a degree in environmental science and is a consultant in Colorado — people know him because he was on The Bachelorette … It was a great team. The producers behind the show were doing it for the right reasons. It was a hard show to produce.

Why was that?

They had a great idea, but it’s a difficult thing to enact initiatives in a short period of time. On While You Were Out, we’re dealing with a few thousand dollars and some creative use of paint and fabric and a new piece of furniture. Now all of a sudden, we’re dealing with anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000 in goods and services in a celebrity’s home, and everything is green and sustainable, in a relatively short amount of time. So it’s a very tall order.

Were these celebrities looking to be greener? How did they get involved with the show?

Most of them had already taken some steps. But for all of us, myself included, there’s always more to learn because things are developing so rapidly that there are new products and new information to understand.

It wasn’t like MTV Cribs, where it was like “bling, hey, bathroom, it’s all done up.” It was very humble and very real — this is our house. Patrick Warburton and his wife Kathy have four kids, and when they took us up to this 1,000-square-foot playroom where we did a lot of work, it looked like the kids had just played in it, you know? So there was a real nice dose of reality in there that I think really helps communicate the earnestness and sincerity of the message, which is this commitment to trying to become more sustainable and doing your part to reduce your carbon footprint.

A lot of celebrities who talk about green issues get criticized for their lifestyles and the fact that they have to fly to an award show or to shoot a movie on location, or that they have several cars. What do you say to criticisms like that?

These are valid debates to keep on the table and keep working on; we shouldn’t throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, that’s just how it needs to be.” But again, there’s always a trade-off. You need to keep working and moving forward while you address these challenges. And it’s certainly a valid topic, this idea of excess — not only in one’s carbon footprint, but in one’s lifestyle of consumption.

I think these philosophical questions — which are very much a part of sustainability because they start to tangentially refer to things like equity, which is a big cornerstone of sustainability — are going to enter the debate and the conversation a little more carefully and perhaps a little slower than the hot-button issues like climate change, and the need for renewable energy. They’re tough issues, but they’re very important ones.

Do you think it scares some people off from talking about it or being open about their interests?

Any trend that is moving rapidly like this one is going to generate a little bit of backlash, a few charlatans — it’s going to happen. I mean let’s face it, we need to be realistic about that. We need to do our part as intelligent citizens to not be seduced by the hot-button, finger-pointing, eco-Nazi sensationalism. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for people to sell newspapers and cheesy television magazine shows by exposing people, or supposedly exposing them. So it’s important to acknowledge that (a) that’s going to happen with any fast-moving trend, (b) try not to feed that fire, and lastly, I think it takes the courage of people like Al Gore and others to stand up and say [something].

How do you break it all down for a wide-ranging audience when you are doing a show like The EcoZone Project?

It really is a skill and an art to make television that can be interesting and informative to a wide market simultaneously. It’s my responsibility to get in front of that camera and make it feel and look simple, because we don’t want people to be scared off. We want them to have fun with it; we want them to feel that “Hey, this is accessible for me. I don’t have to be somebody special, or fancy, or a celebrity, or smart, or rich, or living in a city. I can be me and add this to my life without any kind of stress.”

This stuff isn’t secret. A lot of the practices and even materials we see today are actually not even new; they’re old, especially in building and design. When you talk about passive cooling and you look at architecture from 200 years ago, there are some builders that had some really smart ideas about ventilation, and all that stuff was lost in the industrial revolution. [William] McDonough talks about this a lot in Cradle to Cradle. Cork floors are not new; cork is a wonderful material. I think in Chicago there’s a church that has a cork floor that’s been there for hundreds of years.

What are some of your favorite transformations?

Bruce with Allison Janney.

Courtesy EcoZone Media

We did an episode with Allison Janney from The West Wing where we used a solar thermal installation on her roof to heat her pool. Now again, it seems like a luxury thing: do you really need the pool, and does it need to be heated? But the pool does exist — and lots of pools exist, and lots of people are going to heat them, and they use fossil fuels to heat them. So it’s a step. It’s easy to criticize something like that, but at the same time we have to keep things in perspective. And that technology being employed and that business growing is going to give birth to even more applications and taking more things off the grid.

What’s next for you?

It seems like there will most likely be some more media — whether it’s a television show, or other formats, on blogs or producing other media. I do believe in eco-advocacy; I want to remain involved in that sector of sustainability. As much as I’ve loved picking out couches for people and making fun objects and having a good time in the design sector, I’m very committed to sustainability. I’m just very fortunate that the rest of the world is moving along in the same direction as my interests, because that’s where I want to be.