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.”
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.
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.