The Evolution of an Eco-Empire
It’s been 13 years since Danny Seo graced the cover of KoreAm, and the prince of eco-chic has been busy.
by VIVIEN KIM THORP
In the last decade, Danny Seo has become a ubiquitous ambassador for the land of “eco-chic.” You can find Seo and his environmentally friendly ideas on the pages of magazines, like Real Living and House Beautiful Everyday with Rachael Ray, and in his syndicated newspaper column, “Do Just One Thing.” He has appeared regularly on the Today Show and on the Home Shopping Network, co-created a Simmons mattress line, and helped revamp the homes and wardrobes of Hollywood actresses.
The 35-year-old Korean American, with his uncanny knack for crafting, now sits at the helm of a growing eco-empire. Sometimes dubbed the “green Martha Stewart,” Seo has branded an eponymous housewares line now sold across North America at discount retailers Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and Home-Goods. And this past September he published his eighth book, Upcycling Celebrations: A Use-What-You-Have Guide to Decorating, Gift-Giving and Entertaining.
Seo’s eco-leanings began early, when at age 12, he founded a grassroots environmental organization. By his early 20s, he had penned two books, including one on youth activism, and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
He would go on to pursue an earth-conscience agenda in Washington, D.C., where he volunteered for organizations protecting old-growth forests. Fortuitously, a Washington Post story about his second book, which gave readers simple, pro-environment strategies to change their own communities, turned instead into an article about his eco-friendly apartment. Seo recognized an opportunity when he saw one: he could show, rather than just tell, people how to change their lifestyles. An “environmental lifestyle expert” was born.
Today, Seo has made Bucks County, Pa., his home base. Here, his mid-century modern glass house lets him revel in a more rural lifestyle between his big city gigs. “When I’m going to L.A. for a celebrity client, I wake up at 4 a.m., flip compost and collect fresh eggs from the neighbor’s chickens,” he says. “Then I get on a plane and, by the afternoon, I’m having lunch at the SoHo House.” In return for free eggs, incidentally, Seo helps clean the coop.
Seo’s latest book is his fifth “lifestyle” publication and his second on “upcycling”—the process of repurposing useless items into something new and, in Seo’s case, stylish. “A lot of people don’t know what the concept means,” he admits. “Is it recycling? Is it upchucking?” he jokes.
The book offers 100 seasonally themed projects. Soda pop labels morph into Valentine’s Day cards. Old T-shirts transform into festive garland, and burned out light bulbs get a second life as ornaments for the Christmas tree. Many of the book’s playful projects were photographed at his home, as well as on a lavender farm and at a cottage he keeps in Pipersville, Penn., a writer’s hamlet where bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) is a neighbor.
In addition to his role as an author, he’s also given makeovers to two of actress Kerry Washington’s (currently starring in ABC’s Scandal) homes, which graced the pages of Elle and O magazines. This year he began selling a cleaning product line that he’s dubbed “safe enough to eat.” His yet unnamed fragrance is slated for an Earth Day 2013 launch, and he’s also working on a new skincare line to be sourced in Korea.
However, not everyone is a fan of Seo’s marrying of activism, celebrity and consumerism. He’s been criticized for profiting from the cause and accused of selling out. With all the products he’s linked to, it can seem like the “reduce” part of the old reduce-reuse-recycle adage has been left out. But Seo remains unapologetic and pragmatic about his mission. “Everything I have designed has meaning and a purpose,” he says. “I see how I can use opportunities to reach more people and to shift the way people buy.”
Even his critics may admit that his take on sustainability has made environmentalism more accessible to—and even fun for—a broader audience. His ceramic cookware line is made in a fume-free factory and contains no Teflon or other harmful chemicals. It’s also affordable. (A casserole dish is priced at $9.99.) “The only other eco-cookware is an expensive, niche brand sold at Williams and Sonoma,” he says. “This is an opportunity to make change on a greater scale.”
As for his career trajectory, Seo won’t say what’s too far down the line and swears that he doesn’t have a business plan. Instead, he says he’ll just keep following his gut instinct, a policy that seems to have worked well so far. One thing you likely won’t find him doing in the near term: starring in his own reality show. The creators of TLC’s Flipping Out and Toddlers & Tiaras actually did propose a show for Seo several years ago, but it never made it past the pilot. It turned out reality shows, with their train wreck appeal, were not the best place to pedal eco-conscious living.
“They did everything possible to make us as dysfunctional as possible,” Seo says, laughing. “It’s one thing to be infamous and another thing to be branded.”
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the November issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)