John Pemberton of Carlysle Manufacturing uses tung oil to keep his wood furniture clean and protected and to bring out the grain’s natural richness. Carlysle’s shelving units come in several sizes and wood types (from $175, carlyslemfg.com). (Carlysle Manufacturing)

Using wood in design is nothing new. Keeping it natural — without a stain or a single stroke of paint — isn’t new, either. However, a growing number of designers and woodworkers are putting the natural aesthetics of bare wood center stage, to great effect.

In the home-design world’s very recent past, paint was everything. Find a vintage wooden chair at a flea market? Strip it, then paint it. Now, straight from the design shows in Milan, New York and Los Angeles, designers have opted to keep their wood pieces au naturel or with minimal processing to maintain a sense of purity, substance and authenticity.

“The natural colors of walnut, cherry, maple, sassafras, hickory and oak are so beautiful, I can’t find any reason to cover them up. The designers and woodworkers that I draw upon as influence all work that way,” said Ohio-based furniture designer Freddy Hill when discussing his new Townsend Credenza. “What’s most important to me is trying to distill my designs down to their barest element. Nothing is added simply for the sake of decoration.”


Freddy Hill’s new white oak Townsend Credenza features a plaid pattern created with different types of wood instead of stains ($3,800, freddyhill1976.com). (Freddy Hill Design/Freddy Hill Design)

Of course, designers sometimes have to use a clear stain for comfort, safety or manufacturing reasons, but for the most part, many modern woodworkers are keeping it simple.

John Pemberton, founder of San Francisco-based Carlysle Manufacturing, uses tung oil to keep his wood furniture pieces clean and protected and to bring out the grain’s natural richness. “I’ve never cared for the appearance of one wood species being stained to look like another. It takes away the uniqueness and detail of each board,” Pemberton says.

However, Los Angeles-based designer Shin Okuda, whose “Waka Waka” project focuses on handmade wood furniture, thinks of the material as “a blank piece of paper.” Baltic birch plywood, used with his new rocking chairs, “is a material that doesn’t speak first,” Okuda says. And that’s just fine. Bare-wood designs are perfect for creating a relaxed energy in a space because of their neutrality. They’re not loud or quiet. Rather, they fit into any space without being a blatant distraction.


Designer Shin Okuda’s Double Cylinder Rocking Chair, from his “Waka Waka” collection, is made by hand from Baltic birch plywood without a single piece of hardware (price upon request, lookatwakawaka.com). (Shin Okuda)

Canadian company Jarre’s maple and walnut Sable planters are designed for use with sand, which helps retain the moisture needed to preserve root vegetables ($200, jarre.ca). (Laurence Poirier/Jarre)

There are dozens of reasons designers choose wood. Sure, it’s a readily available material that’s easy to manipulate. But some of the latest designs are proof of the particular pride woodworkers take in using raw wood in natural ways. In other words: keeping the piece’s origin story a major part of its final design.


On view at the Intro/LA design show in Los Angeles in June was the Odin Chair, designed by Jamie McLellan for New Zealand-based company Resident. Taking inspiration from both Japanese and Nordic design, this sleek chair uses solid ash for its elegantly curved back rest and seat base ($1,450, resident.co.nz). (Smallpond)

Material Pendant Lights designed by Christian Noergaard and Martin Kechayas for Copenhagen-based design company New Works take on a simple form in materials such as cork, marble, terra cotta, oak and, above, pine ($295, aplusrstore.com). (A+R)