Always in Style

Wood in Interior Design
Written by Claire Suttles

Wood is a remarkable building material. From Ancient Egyptian tombs to sleek, modern office buildings, this natural resource decorates interiors across time and space.

And no wonder – wood is wonderfully versatile and can be adapted to virtually any design scheme. Looking to imbue a sense of elegance? Dark wood will do the trick. Just imagine an ornate library in a British manor house and one of the first images that come to mind is the rich sophistication of dark, polished wood paneling and moulding. Whitewash that same material and voila, you’ve got shabby chic. Or, juxtapose wood alongside modern design elements to create a stunning contradiction of old fashioned and contemporary for a unique, eye-catching look.

Whatever look you’re going for, wood brings a certain warmth to any design. Bringing nature indoors instils a sense of peace and tranquility that manufactured materials simply cannot duplicate. A research study by David Robert Fell at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver demonstrated that wood delivers stress-reducing effects similar to the emotional boost we get from being outside in nature. The study suggested that wood should be utilized throughout the interiors of hospitals, offices, and schools to help reduce tension.

Wood is also a practical material. It is remarkably resilient and extremely strong relative to its weight. As a natural resource, wood is readily available and economically viable. And, of course, there are the environmental benefits; wood is biodegradable and a renewable resource. Because wood is a natural product, fossil fuels are not used to produce it as they are with plastic, steel, brick, and other manmade construction materials. Wood acts as a natural insulator to reduce the need for heating and cooling. It boasts the lowest carbon footprint of any similar building material. It is actually a carbon sink – meaning it absorbs more carbon than it releases as carbon dioxide.

Wood can also be reused, adding to its environmentally friendly benefits by saving natural resources and reducing the amount of construction waste that ends up in landfills. Reclaimed or salvaged wood is an interior design trend that saves money, adds visual interest, and incorporates the richness of the past into contemporary structures. Reclaimed wood can be used throughout a building, from furniture and flooring to accent walls. The country chic look that reclaimed wood is most often associated with has been declining in popularity, but a creative interior designer can certainly utilize reclaimed wood for a variety of looks that will last longer than a passing trend.

One advantage that outlasts any trendy style is the fact that reclaimed wood tends to come from old growth trees, making it harder and more durable than wood that is harvested today.

Wood has been used in interior design for millennia. Some of the oldest examples date back to Ancient Egypt, where artifacts preserved in tombs showcase advanced woodworking techniques perfected a whopping 5,000 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians developed the art of veneering, utilizing animal glue to overlay wood, and may have been the first to use varnish on wood. (Today, no one knows the formula for that ancient varnish). Ancient Egyptian paintings may even depict bentwood furniture, which is created using heat and moisture to shape the wood. The skill of Ancient Egyptian woodworkers is particularly impressive in light of the fact that they rarely used iron tools before 500 BC. Their craftsmen fashioned wooden masterpieces using copper saws and chisels, flint blades, awls, adzes, bow drills, and bow saws.

The Greeks were skilled woodworkers, but they preferred simpler interior design. Furniture was utilitarian, yet aesthetically pleasing. The wealthy did inlay their wooden furniture – typically backless chairs, stools, footstools and low, portable tables – with painted panels and precious metals. Roman furniture was more intricate and often featured carved animal feet, scrolls, and mythological creatures. The Romans were particularly adept at carving animal faces from wood. But, while fancier than Greek tastes, Roman furniture was still limited. They preferred sparse interior design that showcased a room’s frescos and mosaics, rather than elaborate wooden accents.

Romans did not utilize many objects that we consider obligatory, preferring open spaces to create an air of elegant simplicity. Wooden furniture (or furniture of any kind) was largely limited to couches, chairs, stools, tables, and storage chests; a Roman house was not cluttered with a mantle, dresser, display shelves, china cabinet, desk, or even a coat rack. However, what wooden elements they did use tended to be beautifully and intricately crafted. Ivory, glass, gold, and tortoise shell were all popular inlays. Much like today’s bargain brands, craftsmen sometimes veneered expensive woods over less expensive species to create beautiful, but affordable, pieces.

During the dark ages, interior design became largely irrelevant for most people. Homes during this unstable time often had only the most basic wooden furniture – a rudimentary bed and table. Many homes displayed a wooden chest, or trunk, which was originally made from a large tree trunk. This multipurpose furniture was used for household storage as well as for eating, sitting and even sleeping – a closet, table, couch and bed all in one.

The Catholic Church was largely responsible for maintaining the art of woodcarving and interior design throughout the western world during the dark ages. Churches featured ornate wooden adornments, relics, shrines, and statues. But most woodwork from this time rotted long ago and only a few examples remain.

During the Romanesque period, as Europe emerged from the dark ages around 1,000 AD, woodcarvers tried to copy Roman furniture and architecture, though their efforts often fell far short of their ancient examples. Overall, woodcarving continued to stagnate during this period. Craftsmen tended to copy the designs of stone carvers, limiting their range. Bright accents were in fashion to lighten gloomy interiors so, rather than rely on dark, detailed carvings for aesthetic designs, people preferred to paint wooden relics, shrines, and chests.

Woodworking made a comeback during the Gothic period, which stretched from the 12th to 16th centuries. Woodworkers moved past the limitations of stone carving techniques, and designs became more ornate in the era’s soaring cathedrals. Paint was no longer needed to brighten dark rooms, since the new Gothic architecture allowed plenty of air and light to fill interior spaces. Craftsmen often had free artistic rein when fashioning elaborate choir-stalls and altars, carving creative scenes that featured everything from flowers to griffins. Byzantine and Islamic influence from the crusades also impacted interior design and woodcarving became slightly more experimental as artists were exposed to new ideas.

The Renaissance, of course, ushered in an era of beauty for the sake of beauty. Interior design benefitted and wood was used to its best advantage throughout wealthy homes, churches, and secular buildings. The Catholic Church remained one of the greatest patrons of intricate woodwork and cathedrals from the era feature remarkably detailed designs, particularly in the wooden choir-stalls. European woodworking arguably reached its zenith during this time of artistic expression and advancement.

Today, elaborate woodcarvings are no longer a standard interior design element. The Wood Design Awards by the nonprofit organization WoodWorks highlight the freshest, most creative uses of wood in buildings today. Sleek and modern, the winners are miles apart from the traditional use of wood in interior design – but no less stunning than their Gothic counterparts. The 2020 Jury’s Choice award went to First Tech Federal Credit Union in Hillsboro, Oregon, designed by Hacker. The firm focused on creating a healthy, happy environment by bringing nature indoors; the beautiful wood structural system is visible throughout the interior of the building. Glulam columns and beams frame expansive views of the surrounding park and creek, while raised floors hide the HVAC and electrical systems to remove distractions and keep the focus on the timeless sophistication of cross-laminated timber ceilings.

Wood has enjoyed a long and storied place in our interior designs. From the ancient world to the 21st century, its benefits have never faded and its versatility is as relevant now as it was 5,000 years ago. After all, what other material could work as well in a Pharaoh’s tomb as in an award-winning, contemporary office building?



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