Constantly evolving Lake Crystal businesswoman and Ph.D. teaches and creates healthy interior design—for home and work.
Photo By Kris Kathmann
Overlooking Loon Lake from the three-season sun porch of her rural Lake Crystal home, Dr. Linda Nussbaumer gestures toward the dock and points out that the lawn leading down to it is not weed free. It’s obvious the grass has been mowed, making the weeds less noticeable, but Nussbaumer says there’s a good reason for their presence.
“If we used weed killer, it would run off into the lake,” she explains. “There are too many chemicals running off into the lake already.” The comment provides insight into Nussbaumer’s motivation for researching environmental quality of life issues such as green design for construction and multiple chemical sensitivity. Her credentials include a Ph.D. in interior design from the University of Minnesota and a full professorship at South Dakota State University, Brookings.
Nussbaumer’s work commute usually takes nearly three hours each way, which she says is the equivalent of living in Lake Crystal and commuting daily to work in St. Peter, except she drives the distance in two long trips each week. Her first week of teaching at SDSU in January 1994 (there were no positions available in Mankato), she dealt with wind chills of minus 65 degrees. Although she has never been stuck or stranded by weather conditions, it once took her five hours to get home. She appreciates that the long drive allows her to prepare mentally for classes on Monday (she leaves no later than 6 a.m.) and to let go of her frustrations driving home on Friday.
The story of Nussbaumer’s professional growth brings into play both left-brained and right-brained talents—one organizational, the other creative. The story began 35 years ago with Linda’s Custom Draperies, which segued into Linda’s Custom Interiors.
“In 1961 I went to school for accounting at Mankato Commercial College and worked in that field,” Nussbaumer says. “But I liked to sew and thought I was fairly creative, so I began a drapery business.”
Ads in the Lake Crystal Tribune and the Yellow Pages drew customers, and referrals brought more people looking for window treatments. When customers began asking for other decorating advice, Nussbaumer realized she needed more education.
“I enrolled at Minnesota State in 1986,” Nussbaumer says. “I was always helping other students (part of being a mother), and discovered I could teach, so I decided to do that.” To reach her goal, she enrolled in an MSU graduate program as soon as she earned her Bachelors degree in interior design. Her Masters thesis focused on restoration of the Hubbard House in Mankato, a French Second Empire mansion built in 1871 and redecorated in 1888 and 1905. Nussbaumer’s research and advice helped the Blue Earth County Historical Society (BECHS) renovate and restore the mansion to its 1905 appearance.
“I researched textiles, furniture, accessories and room layout,” Nussbaumer says. “I helped BECHS choose furniture and the coverings for floors, walls and ceilings. The combination of arts and crafts style and the art nouveau style of the era can be seen in the dining room, which has walls with wainscot, a beam ceiling and a hanging Tiffany lamp.”
While living in Lake Crystal, she and her husband Jerry developed ideas for building a lakeside home. They had an architect draw plans to their specifications for the three-bedroom, three-bath saltbox-style house they built in 1975-76. Nussbaumer recently remodeled the kitchen and other parts of the main floor.
“It’s a small kitchen,” she says, “and it’s always a challenge to design small kitchens. The extra lighting gives the impression of more space, and we create atmosphere by dimming and highlighting.” A visitor’s eye is drawn to red accents, including cardinals, in the otherwise white and off-white room. Red, Nussbaumer’s favorite color, is the accent color throughout her home, appearing in such places as a door and in a sofa and accessories.
“Despite time constraints, I still do some consulting on kitchen and bathroom design, mostly in South Dakota,” Nussbaumer says. “To satisfy the customer, you must listen, pay attention to what the customer needs and wants, and read between the lines. It can be as simple as walking into a person’s home, looking at the furniture and noting the accessories. Some people ask about trends. They want the most recent colors and styles. Current trends are master bedroom suites, less formal living rooms, large kitchens that are open, and professionally painted wall textures.”
When considering furniture placement, Nussbaumer first looks at the purpose of the facility. In a clinic, for example, the designer would consider the flow of incoming traffic and design the entryway so patients could receive an immediate response from the receptionist. The waiting room would be easily accessible and there would be no long hallways. As for the current popularity of arranging furniture based on feng shui, a system that comes from the Chinese culture, Nussbaumer says she doesn’t follow it.
“Feng shui is superstitious in its basis,” she explains, “so I do not believe in it. Functionalism makes more sense. It’s also important to pay attention to color because some people want or need certain colors. A person with depression cannot have blue, and people with seasonal affective disorder (the “winter blues”) need lighter colors as well as natural light. Green tends to create positive reactions. I use neutrals, not stark white, with it. Also, we see color differently as we get older. I have to keep that in mind when I look at colors.”
When Nussbaumer began her drapery business, she dealt mostly with homemakers. While beginning to draw up house plans for couples, she found that husbands always wanted to be there for the kitchen design as well as for the entire home, perhaps because the kitchen is the most expensive room to construct. Now, her audience includes not only students, but also architectural firms and her contemporaries at national and international conferences. In 1998 she earned a Ph.D. in interior design by taking summer classes at the University of Minnesota and related classes, such as statistics, quantitative research and college teaching at SDSU. During that time, she developed her specialties.
“When I took a class in green design at the University of Minnesota, I heard a presentation on multiple chemical sensitivity and indoor air quality,” Nussbaumer explains. “In 1995 I began to interview people with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Some I knew, others I found at SDSU by word of mouth. There are more women than men with MCS, but women spend more time indoors. The average age is 40. People with MCS can experience symptoms that may include headaches, tiredness, nausea, rash, eye irritation, or even difficulty in speaking, writing or remembering. The chemicals that cause such symptoms in sensitive individuals can be found in sources such as detergents, cosmetics, perfumes, colognes, pesticides, cleaning products, deodorizers, clothing or other fabric, tobacco, drugs and foods.”
Poor indoor air quality may be costing the nation tens of billions of dollars–one estimate, $60 billion–in lost productivity and medical care annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Mundane things like carpets and cleaning compounds can be the culprits. Drawing on information from research and interviews done over the last five years, Nussbaumer offers suggestions and advice for increasing workers’ productivity by improving their environment.
“When building or remodeling, work with an architect or designer who understands green design and takes a global view of design,” Nussbaumer advises. “The designer should do research on products and materials appropriate for indoor air quality. Everything that’s done, every product used, affects the environment. Think about how the product or material is manufactured. Cotton, for example, is produced with fertilizers and pesticides, and then dyed with chemicals. There’s an eco-polyester available now that is produced and dyed with all environmentally safe ingredients. Beware if you smell something after a new carpet has been installed. You may be smelling the adhesive and the finishes rather than the carpet. You could be smelling formaldehyde.”
She adds, “When I toured a carpet manufacturing plant, I noticed no odor, but a carpet absorbs odors from other things, such as paints. Even water-based paints can contain harmful chemicals. Look for a product with a label that indicates low VOC (volatile organic compounds) or no VOC. A carpet also can absorb moisture that can cause mold or mildew, and carpets also absorb dust and attract dust mites.”
She explains that mold can cause flu-like symptoms and skin rash. It also can aggravate asthma and cause fungal infections. Symptoms usually are temporary and may be eliminated by removing the mold. Dust mites, which are a great trigger for asthma attacks, are an indoor problem when they become airborne through vacuuming, dusting or moving furniture cushions. One solution is to replace carpeting with a hard surface floor and use area rugs that can be removed for cleaning.
So, what’s an employer to do? First, consider the installation process, Nussbaumer advises.
“Select an appropriate carpet, one that does not have a stain-resistant finish because that includes chemicals,” she says. “Use polyester, which has natural stain resistance. Go to the carpet manufacturer and ask for a low emitting carpet, pad and adhesive. Look for the green label, which looks like a house with a carpet unrolling and includes the letters CRI and the words ‘Green Label.’
The process and method of installation may also prevent the emission of chemicals. Nussbaumer points out the importance of unrolling and airing out the new carpet in a clean, well-ventilated area before installation. Employees with MCS, asthma or other respiratory conditions should not be in the area during or immediately after installation. Windows and doors should be kept opened during installation, and window fans and room air conditioners should be run to increase the amount of outside air and to exhaust toxic fumes to the outdoors. Ventilation should continue for two or three days after installation.
Products used for cleaning the workplace are another concern, and Nussbaumer recommends finding cleaning products with low VOC. Whether the workplace cleaning is done by a contractor or by employees, the employer needs to put a safe process in place and then simply maintain it.
“Employers also must find a way to ventilate, to bring in outside air,” Nussbaumer says. “It can be a problem in older buildings, where windows don’t open. Air conditioners help, of course. It’s also important not to block ventilation units in the wall or on the floor. Don’t set anything in front of or on top of them.”
With seven publications in print, which helped Nussbaumer achieve full professorship, she currently is researching and writing not only about MCS and indoor air quality, but also about living environments for the elderly. The project’s description is “nursing home design for a better living environment and designing senior housing for the baby boomers.” Nussbaumer calls it the Eden Alternative (see sidebar.)
The work isn’t all serious. In fact, gathering and developing ideas for the Eden Alternative has been a pleasure.
“It’s fun to go to conferences and hear ideas on nursing home design and other design-related topics,” Nussbaumer says. Her fun also includes a May 2006 trip in which she took nine students to Germany for 11 days. The group explored not only the architecture of Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, and several other cities, but also German history, culture and food.
“We saw the new Mercedes-Benz Museum just days after its opening,” Nussbaumer says. “The architectural design is innovative; it revolves around two intertwining spirals, and its three points represent the Mercedes-Benz symbol.”
But it’s the serious issues of green design, MCS and indoor air quality that remain at the top of Nussbaumer’s agenda. She hopes to act as a consultant on these issues to designers, business owners, consumers, etc., and encourages people to visit http://agbiopubs.sdstate.edu/showall.cfm in order to access the November 2006 information.
“My research since 1998 shows that baby boomers want something different from the way nursing homes currently are,” Nussbaumer says. “They would prefer something more like assisted living facilities designed so the boomers can stay active, be independent and have the privacy of their own apartments, or at least not share a room with another person. They want shower and bath facilities to be more convenient and more homelike.
“Currently, nursing homes are institutions, many with long hallways. Nurses have desks out in the open rather than in an office. The Eden Alternative is about creating homelike facilities, with options for meals and activities instead of gathering everyone in the dining room for meals or for an activity.
“They should be designed more like neighborhoods,” Nussbaumer says, “with a central kitchen facility and dining area in each neighborhood, perhaps off of a wheel hub, with each spoke being a neighborhood. The central area (hub) could include some shopping facilities and offer activities such as concerts. Having a child day care in the facility would be neat. It would be good for both the children and the elderly. An adult could read to a child, which would make more of the adults feel worthwhile.”
Growing up on a farm near Marshall, Minn., Nussbaumer planned to become a home economics teacher (“I’ve steered away from it, but not much”) and spent much of her childhood rearranging the furniture in the house, especially in her room. When her father decided to build a new house, she worked with him on the plans.
Linda Nussbaumer’s research isn’t limited to the chemicals and toxins causing environmental and health problems. She peruses the Bible and Bible commentaries when developing the sermons she has presented as a lay speaker the last 15 years at First United Methodist Church in Lake Crystal.
Education: “I looked forward to September,” she recalls. “I loved school. I liked grammar (analyzing and diagramming a sentence) and history because I’m fascinated with how the past affects the present. I loved determining the degree of an angle in geometry and I liked biology and chemistry even though I didn’t care for general science. And I liked art classes, too, because I like to draw and paint.”
Although Nussbaumer has earned three university degrees, there’s much she would still like to learn.
“More art history,” she says. “I’d like to study Greek and Roman art.” She also appreciates the opportunity of learning at professional conferences once or twice a year and usually returns the favor by presenting a paper to other conference attendees.
Employment: Since her teens, Nussbaumer’s jobs have honed her ability to put information in order and to “read” people. Her high school job as a hardware store bookkeeper gave her the opportunity to learn how to work with people of various ages and backgrounds. When she worked as a receptionist and accountant at Mankato Paper Box, she learned to talk with strangers and communicate well on the phone.
Family: Nussbaumer met her husband, Jerry, an estimator for a utility contractor, in the halls of Green Giant, where she worked in the accounting department. They were married in 1963. Of all her accomplishments thus far, she says she’s most proud of having raised two fine sons, one of whom lives in Mankato, the other in Colorado. They have provided her with five grandchildren.
Off the Job: “I like bicycling, swimming and boating,” Nussbaumer says. “We have a pontoon and canoe. I enjoy spending time with our grandchildren, and I like to read educational materials, devotionals and some things just for enjoyment. The most relaxing activity, though, is playing the piano when I have time. I sometimes consider the piano my most valued possession, but it’s my Bible I carry with me when I travel. The intangible I value most is my relationship with my husband.”
Ideal Job: “I would always want to work with people, and I do that both in design and in teaching.”
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