Lookiloos and Scene Magazine, produced by the San Jose Mercury News, teamed up to profile Ecofabulous founder Zem Joaquin. Here’s the story of Zem’s fascinating life written by Julia Prodis Sulek, and photos and slideshow of her own sexy, sustainable house by Desiree Northend:
She was born in 1970 with a name that means “earth” in Czech on a commune in Palo Alto called “The Land.”
Zem Joaquin was a dark-haired pixie with patchwork pants who played with chickens, danced in the central longhouse and sang with Joan Baez in the squatters camp off Page Mill Road.
The darling of the draft resisters back then, she became the subject of their illustrated fairy tale about “Zem, the little queen” who unites a strife-torn world. Even Baez, who founded the commune and lived there for a time, included “Zem Zem” in her 1975 song, “Children and All That Jazz.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that she was destined to make a name for herself in the environmental movement. Unlike her parents’ generation that reveled in the counterculture fringe, though, she is helping create a modern movement in the mainstream.
And she’s doing so with her own sense of rebellion: She’s making green glamorous.
Founder of Ecofabulous, she created a Web site that gives readers eco-friendly lifestyle options, from modular furniture made from recycled paper to chic throws made of hemp and flax. Going green needs to be less about sacrifice, she realized, and more about motivation. (The site’s motto: “sexy.sustainable.style.”) After all, she muses, “People weren’t too interested when organic cotton looked like oatmeal and felt like a burlap sack.”
Step inside the 1960s-era home in Marin County that she remodeled for her family and you’ll see what she means.
At 39 years old and just 5 feet tall, she opens the front door with bare feet and a big smile. Behind her, vintage black-and-white curtains she found at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire frame a pair of chairs she recovered in remnant lime green silk. Sleek kitchen counters are made from newspaper wood pulp and fly ash. Her vintage Laszlo dining room chairs are refilled with natural rubber.
“Being fabulous is feeling like you’re getting what you really want,” she says. “At the same time, you’re not taking more than you need and you’re giving back.”
So how did this commune kid become such a design diva?
She may have been raised on granola, but she came of age living in London for two-and-a-half years in her early 20s with her godmother – a stylish critic for the Evening Standard who took her to theaters, boutiques and Paris for weekends and “taught me everything I know about design.” Joaquin (then Spire, her maiden name) finished her degree in organizational communications at Pepperdine, where she started a recycling program. And after a stint managing male models in Italy (she followed a boyfriend there), she returned to San Francisco in the late 1990s to help her best friend, Gina Pell, start Pell’s fledgling fashion and beauty Web site, Splendora.
“She was my VP of business development because she’s so good with people. She has a way of developing and nurturing connections,” Pell says. “I always told her that if she was a superhero, that would be her superpower – the ultimate connector.”
It was Pell, though, who connected Zem with her husband, tech entrepreneur James Joaquin.
They met at a cocktail party in 1999 in San Francisco, married and had two children. She was volunteering for homeless causes and political campaigns when her children were diagnosed with severe asthma. The family was living in an old Craftsman in San Francisco at the time, spending many a night in the emergency room when she decided she had to “save my children and create a healthy home.”
The Marin County house, tucked among blackberry bushes and towering trees, became her eco-incubator. Old painted beams were stripped with beeswax, wall-to-wall carpeting was replaced with recycled wine-cork flooring and solar panels were added to the roof.
But finding sustainable products, and stylish ones at that, wasn’t easy. “I realized there was this enormous gap,” she says. “There were no resources for eco-design and people interested in design.”
It was her husband who handed her a copy of “Cradle to Cradle,” the environmental manifesto of architect William McDonough, whom James Joaquin had heard speak at the 2004 TED conference for technology, entertainment and design in Monterey.
“This is what you’ve been talking about,” he said at the time to his wife, “what you’ve been spiraling in towards.”
She was so enthralled by the book, which professes ecologically intelligent design, that she invited McDonough to lunch with “some of my friends that I think can change the world.”
The guest list included her husband’s good friend, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; Segway inventor Dean Kamen, whom she had met at a dinner party; and inventor, entrepreneur and Disney “imagineer” Danny Hillis.
This time, it was McDonough’s turn to be impressed. He invited her to attend his annual eco-summit in Iceland the following year with some 20 “thought leaders” and activists.
Unlike some in the environmental movement who preach doom and gloom, he says, Joaquin takes a positive approach.
“It’s a big dark world out there, and we need brightness,” he says in a phone interview from Abu Dhabi where he was talking to real estate developers about green design. “Zem is a sparkle.”
And she knows how to throw a party. Over the past several years, she has raised nearly $1 million dollars for Global Green, an L.A.-based nonprofit that activates its Hollywood base to bring attention to green issues, including the sustainable rebuilding of New Orleans and Haiti. At her first party she threw at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco several years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio showed up. Salma Hayek and Orlando Bloom came to the second.
“She actually seduces people into doing the right thing,” Ariana Huffington of the Huffington Post said when she presented Joaquin with Global Green’s Founder’s Award last year. “She always makes people feel that the right thing is the fun thing.”
Plus, she added, “she’s adorable.”
While Joaquin founded Ecofabulous in 2006 to chronicle her environmentally friendly remodeling resources, she has since expanded it to include organic beauty, fashion and lifestyle choices. She consults with such companies as eBay and Safeway and has been a frequent “green” guest on radio and TV shows. She raises chickens in her side yard, grows tomatoes and herbs, and even has her 6-year-old daughter weighing in with her opinion about kids’ green products. And over the past few years, she’s convinced every one of her closest friends to drive a hybrid.
So what’s next?
“I never thought in a million years I would want to have a commune,” she says.
But lately, she’s thinking about it, maybe bringing her closest friends together, living sustainably off the grid. She doesn’t have the details worked out yet, but one thing is certain: Unlike the A-frames and outhouses she grew up with, she says, “this commune would be stylized.”
Here’s the complete slideshow: