Tag Archives: eco-friendly

Designer Spotlight: Rachel Winokur

27 Oct

Rachel Winokur is the Principal and Lead Designer of eTTa Designs, an eco-friendly boutique interior design firm.  She received an International Design Award and was heralded as “one(s) to watch” by ASID Icon.  Rachel is an Allied member of ASID and a Certified Green Building Professional with 15 years of combined experience in a variety of creative disciplines, including attending the Boston Architectural Center and UCLA Arc_ID.  Rachel’s interior design career began at award-winning Boston architecture firm Ann Beha Architects and then Los Angeles with various firms including the prestigious Michael S. Smith, Inc.  In 2007, she founded eTTa with projects like an eco-luxe spa and presidential suite at Hotel Casa del Mar, an eco-friendly nail salon, and a green residential renovation.  Some of Rachel’s community contributions include designing a room at a family shelter, panels and presentations like Dwell on Design, and serving as a Guest Critic at a UCLA Extension Architecture and Interior Design Program Design Studio.

I’m very pleased to share this conversation with Rachel Winokur, an extremely talented eco-friendly designer who has led quite a fascinating life so far. She’s gone from growing up on a 52 ft Sailboat and raising chickens to working with renowned White House designer Michael Smith to dedicating her talent to designing a greener planet–there’s a lot to learn from this lady!

Los Feliz Project: View from Dining Room into Living Room

TSL:  Hi Rachel, so glad you can join me for this interview.  You’ve work with so many interesting people including Michael S. Smith, Interior Designer to the White House and President and Michelle Obama.  Very impressive!  How did you land such a great position starting out?  Many new designers would love to know how to secure a position with such a well known designer, any tips?  

RW:  Prior to working at Michael S. Smith, Inc., I worked for several architecture firms, but never any interior design ones.  At the time I interviewed with Michael, about 5 years ago (just 3 years after moving to LA from Boston), I didn’t realize how significant of a designer he was and ultimately the impact my employment there would have on my career.  I don’t recall how I found out about the job opening but I submitted my resumé and was lucky enough to have a casual meeting with the Design Director at a large wood dining table in the kitchen of the office and then Michael met with me briefly.  I think that he relied on the Design Director to determine if I had the necessary skills while Michael met me to see if there was a personality fit.  I was hired as a Sr. Designer and worked my way up to Director of the Commercial Department.  Some of the strengths that helped me flourish at Michael’s were organizational skills, a proactive approach, anticipating Michael’s needs, ability to respond quickly, management skills, resourcefulness, and customer service.

TSL:  Obviously hard work and perseverance do pay off. What did you learn from him?

RW:  I am extremely grateful for my time with Michael as he was my first design mentor.  As a result of working closely with him, I gained valuable design skills including developing concept ideas, presentation techniques, FF&E selections (especially fabric combinations), furniture layouts, client collaboration and client service.


Before: Los Feliz Project-Living Room


TSL:  Had you considered other types of work before pursuing design?  If so, what kind? What led you to design?

RW:  It took me almost 10 years after graduating college to discover that I wanted to be an Interior Designer.  I tried fashion merchandising at J.Crew, fashion design at FIT, writing a business plan to open a café in Portsmouth, NH and textile design at Massachusetts College of Art.  Then, I took an interior design class at the Boston Architectural Center and loved it!  I immediately started their Master’s of Interior Design program in 2000 and felt a tremendous sense of relief, and excitement.

Before:  Los Feliz Project Breakfast Lounge


TSL:  Isn’t it interesting how so many people stumble upon what they really love in life, especially with the creative arts?  It really is a trial and error search for many of us but it all seems to make us better at what we do-just like studying fashion and textile design previously gives your interiors a different and more personal perspective. And now, you have become known for being an “eco-friendly designer”, what led you in this direction?

RW:  I wasn’t very focused on eco design until I started my own business where I was able to take stock of what was truly important to me and chose what I really wanted to do rather than carry out someone else’s vision.  I employed a few eco design elements in my first residential project with my new business 3 years ago, and shortly thereafter completed my first eco project for a nail salon.  The eco nail salon was (and still is) such a great example of sustainable design, that I used it as the basis for several conference panels and presentations.  That project really proved to me that it’s possible to be green while looking cool and keeping to a tight budget.  I was hooked on sustainable design!  However, it was the Sea Wellness Spa at Hotel Casa del Mar in 2008 which was my first large-scale eco project and garnered me a lot of eco design attention.  My luxury hotel client’s priority was an elegant and luxurious spa which I gave them.  But, I also gave them a green spa within budget, so it’s like they got a bonus, and they were thrilled.  Eco design doesn’t define a style, it is merely a tool to achieve a final result that can be healthy, eco-friendly and even socially and economically conscious.

Eco Nail Salon

Over the last few years, my passion for sustainable design has grown stronger.  Also, I remembered that I was named after Rachel Carson (my middle name is Carson), the naturalist who wrote several books including Silent Spring, which exposed the dangers of pesticides.  Plus, I had always enjoyed the natural world as a child, whether it was visiting the Natural Science Center, going to the beach (between the South Shore of Massachusetts and Cape Cod), sailing, even living on a sailboat for 2 ½ years, and skiing (I was a competitive Freestyle Skier and skied almost every weekend and vacation week in the winter).

Rachel and her sister,growing up carefree amongst nature. Isn’t this just the most beautiful photo?

TSL:  Do you especially like working in the spa genre?  

RW:  I loved working on the nail salon and the eco luxe spa because I was able to create something that would positively impact so many more people than if they were residential projects.  In addition, since our lives today can be so busy and hectic, it’s extremely important to decompress and I really liked creating a relaxing space that serves as a respite and helps guests find balance in their lives.  Also, unlike most residential projects, I love being involved in a multi-dimensional design and incorporate all 5 senses like peaceful music, relaxing scents, comfy seating, soothing palette and calming tea.  I even enjoy the challenge of designing for a public space where durability is crucial and where strict health and safety codes govern.

Sea Wellness Spa Entry

TSL:  Your transformation of the Sea Wellness Spa at Hotel Casa del Mar is breathtaking.  What were your influences?  Any difficulties in keeping it an eco-friendly re-do?

RW:  Thank you!  I still get excited every time I cross through the threshold into the spa and experience the space.  And I love watching everyone’s reaction when they enter and are instantly transported by the sights, sounds and scents. 

There are many influences that contributed to the creation of the spa, though there is no clear theme (which was intentional as I’m not a fan of places that look theme-like).  First and most influential, I was inspired by the beach location of the hotel.  Especially since there are no windows in the spa, I felt it was extremely important to make a clear connection.  That notion brought along with it a palette of browns and dark greens to represent the sand, sea, seaweed and even beach grasses (more so an influence of the Cape Cod beaches where I grew up).  Also, natural materials like Matrix-Z’s natural shell fit right in as a wall inlay and face of the reception desk.  The beach also influenced my design of the quiet lounge which is based on a cabana with curtain walls and comfy low Cisco Brothers chairs, a height reminiscent of typical low beach chairs.  Even the abaca wrapped Kenneth Cobonpue coffee table in the lounge reminds me of a lobster trap.  The beach location made me think of slatted teak which was also a strong design influence and led to horizontal elements.  I accomplished this with The Reclaimer’s reclaimed wood wall paneling in the entry hallway installed horizontally.  Also, I respected the 1926 Renaissance Revival architecture of the building with symmetry in the layout.  This is evident immediately when you enter through the original entrance where I created a hallway with a hidden door on the right and then a pair of matching doors on the left and right just before the locally made sustainably custom-built reception area by Cliff Spencer which is also symmetrical.   

There really weren’t many difficulties in obtaining and installing the eco elements.  Perhaps the biggest challenge was finding the right eco lighting that could be used with a dimmer and create the proper ambience.

The Quiet Room at the Sea Wellness Spa

TSL:  I think I’m seeing a pattern here…spas, water, Cape Cod, it all makes sense. I was so fascinated to learn you grew up on a boat.  How did that come about and what was that like?  What did it teach you about how much “stuff” you do or don’t need in life?

RW:  We had already done a lot of boating and sailing as a family and then one day, I remember my parents telling me and my younger sister (we are just 13 months apart) that we were going to live on a boat.  I was about 8 years old and I don’t remember thinking it was anything odd and in fact I loved it and only remember fun, freedom, adventure and happiness.  My sister and I even each brought our Persian cats on board and they seemed to love it too! 

I had my own room, the V-Berth, which was at the front or bow of the boat and on the left or port side was my bunk bed and some built-in storage on the right or starboard side.  All I needed at the time was a comfy bed, some clothes and my cat.  Though it was nice to also have my bike on board where it was stored in my parents’ tub with everyone else’s.  The boat was a 52’ Irwin Catch and felt roomy to me and had conveniences like a small limestone fireplace and a washer and dryer.  I also recall there was even enough room to invite friends over for a birthday party!  Plus, even though we were Jewish, there were several years where we fit a Christmas tree on the boat.  My favorite spot on the boat was sitting at the bowsprit on a rope seat my dad made with my cat with the wind in my face and the unknown in front of me.  I truly feel I had the best childhood ever!

The experience of living on a boat and in a small space with just essentials was valuable.  It has helped me as an adult adapt well to and live happily in many small apartments.  Since it proved to me that living in excess, is not necessary, it is one more way I can help my design clients create a space that satisfies their needs while also being environmentally and economically conscious. 

TSL:  That sounds like an incredible childhood!  How much fun. It seems there have been many influences in your life, one being your namesake, Rachel Carson who you mentioned earlier. Would you share more about her?

RW:  Rachel Carson, a writer, naturalist and ecologist, was named “one of the most influential people of the 20th century”, according to TIME magazine.  She grew up in Pennsylvania, had a life-long love of the ocean and received degrees in biology and marine biology.  She became a published author at age 10 and her fourth and perhaps most famous work was Silent Spring – a warning about the hazards associated with the random use of chemical pesticides and their potentially adverse effect on the environment and human health. Carson encouraged the need for more extensive research before discharging chemicals into our environment.

Carson’s environmental ethic below is still so meaningful for me today on how I chose to live my life, especially the last line which I feel relates to social and economic sustainability.

  • Live in harmony with nature
  • Preserve and learn from natural places
  • Minimize the impact of man-made chemicals on natural systems of the world
  • Consider the implications of human activities on the global web of life.

TSL:  Your two grandmothers also had a great influence on you, in fact so much so they are the reason for the name of your design firm.  What were they like?  What inspired you?

RW:  I feel so fortunate to have had such amazing and influential grandmothers.  They each possessed incredible strengths from which I draw constantly.  One of them was Etta and it was her fashionable, well-traveled, and cultured ways that made a significant impact on me, especially in my design career.  The other grandmother we called TT (hence the capital T’s in the business name eTTa), and it was her optimism and outgoing nature that still inspires me and informs my professional demeanor.

Rachel’s room at The Upward Bound House

TSL:  You were one of the small group of designers that generously donated your time and talent to the Upward Bound Homeless Shelter by designing one of the rooms—how did this affect you?  What did you learn?

RW:  It was fairly easy for me to say YES to adopting a room at the Upward Bound House Family Shelter in Culver City earlier this year.  Though I didn’t know what would actually be involved or how I would accomplish designing a room in such a short span of time with donations that hadn’t yet been acquired.  However, once I started, I was so committed to making it happen that I didn’t waste any time or energy on thinking that it may not work out.  I believe it was my dedication that was key to a successful room with mostly donations, in such a small amount of time. 

I felt empowered as I invited others, like the vendors and friends who donated products and services, to contribute to this project.  In the end, there were an astonishing 50+ organizations and individuals who contributed to the tiny 130 square foot room.  And the finished product was so stunning it was one of just a few (of the 18 rooms in total) recently featured in a terrific spread in Nesting Newbies!  Even though I get such a charge out of designing spaces, this project was unique because of the collaboration involved plus knowing that a family with children, who had been homeless, would be living there temporarily and re-building their lives.  Such a powerful experience!  

TSL:  What materials do you especially enjoy working with?

RW:  I love using sustainable fabrics (like batiks from Katherine Rally Textiles or embroidered fabric from Deseo Textiles), reclaimed wood (from The Reclaimer and American Reclaimed), eco wallpaper (like Madison & Grow), sustainable tile (like Erin Adams Design) and recycled marble (like Eurostone Inc.). 

Sneak peek at the Presidential Suite at Casa Del Mar

TSL:  Are there any tips you can pass on to us to help us all be a little more eco-friendly?



•buy vintage and antique furnishings and hardware
•buy salvaged materials and hardware
•reupholster and refinish
•use non-toxic finishes
•use recycled fabrics or those made from renewable sources
•buy furnishings made from renewable sources
•use reclaimed wood
•buy durable furnishings
•buy multi-functional pieces

 Since sustainable design isn’t just about décor, but also what goes on behind the scenes, there are several non-decorative low- and no-cost solutions.


•open curtains on south-facing windows during the day, close at night
•lower water heater temp to 120°
•set thermostat as low as comfortable
•turn thermostat back 10-15° while sleeping or away and save 10%
•wash clothes in cold water
•air dry clothes during summer
•turn off unneeded lights
•close fireplace damper when not using fireplace
•when using fireplace, open dampers in the bottom or open a nearby window 1” and close nearby doors
•remove shoes inside


•setback thermostat
•energy-saving appliance features like power-down or sleep mode on PC
•electronic power-controlling devices for older appliances
•stop air leaks
•insulate water heater
•add attic insulation
•install efficient showerheads
•weatherize windows
•faucet aerators
•seal and insulate ducts
•add fans
•proper window treatments to block heat from sunlight
•passive cooling and heating techniques
•replace 6 interior incandescents.

TSL:  Wow!  Thank you-many Excellent tips here.  What do you consider to be one of the most important investment pieces for the home?

RW:  The most important investment piece for the home is a non-toxic comfortable bed (including mattress, linens, bed frame and any upholstery) since we spend most of our time in bed and a good night sleep is crucial to good health.  The second most important piece is an ergonomic task chair so that we can comfortably work on our laptops catching up on emails and Facebook.

Rachel’s Marina Studio

TSL:  If you only had $100 to spend on something for your home—besides paint—what would you buy?

RW:  Since the way a home functions is just as important to me as how it looks, and I’m extremely focused on creating a proper bedroom, I would use the $100 for an eye mask and sound machine.

The Marina Studio. Stunning pillows…

TSL:  If you only had $20?

RW:  A gorgeous and sturdy glass goblet to help encourage me to drink lots of water throughout the day!

TSL:  What is the one design/interior you would most like to go back and change, and how?

RW:  Honestly, nothing comes to mind. 

TSL:  Name 3 living people you’d like to have dinner with?

RW:  (I’m stuck on this one….I bet people pick famous people, but my focus is my family so can I pick just one?) My 4 year old nephew Chase (he lives in VT so I don’t see him enough).

TSL:  Very sweet and says so much about you…Favorite thing you can’t live without?

RW:  If it doesn’t have to be design-related, then my must have is my lip moisturizer!

TSL: I’m an addict too, Burt’s Bees for me… 🙂  What design trend just irks you?

 RW:  There really aren’t any current design trends that irk me, but I’ve never been a fan of most animal prints.  To me, they often seem tacky and too fake.  I prefer the idea of a pattern being a loose interpretation of an animal print, rather than a close resemblance.   

TSL:  Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your time and knowledge with us. This has not only been an insightful interview but fun too! I think we have all learned so much and look forward to seeing much more of your work in the future.