"Gigantic trees and rain forests were a part of my natural surroundings," says sculptor Gabriela Valenzuela, who grew up in Costa Rica. "I remember being six years old and marveling at the guava tree in my school yard." After a stint as a clothing designer in Manhattan (at Go Silk, she helped start the washed-silk trend of the 1980s), Valenzuela returned in 1996 to Costa Ricaand to its trees. She started carving and polishing driftwood into bowls and sculptures, then moved on to using old stumps dug up from behind her house. Today, Valenzuela hasn't left the world of fashion behind entirelyshe designs wood jewelry for a prominent Parisian companyand beauty remains the primary reason she creates her curvaceous, polished serving pieces, furniture and vases. "I love wood in its natural state, with the age and patina showing," Valenzuela says. But she's also taking a political stance. Costa Rica has long been a leader in environmentalism, and Valenzuela models her business on those principles. She uses only wood that has been recycled or comes from areas reforested with indigenous trees such as cortez, genizaro and zebrawood, each of which has a distinct, prominent grain. Valenzuela is socially conscious as well: Her company, Heartwood, supports the local economy by hiring area craftspeople to execute her unique designs. "When I create a salad bowl," she says, "I feel like I'm bringing out the wood's personality" (place mats from $65, bowls from $62, from Shelter; 323-937-3222).