There’s no denying it—wood is ‘graining’ traction as a popular design element. Despite the material’s higher price point, wood has taken root against today’s tight recessionary budgets to expand beyond its traditional use in the corporate sector. Now, wood is cropping up more frequently as a design staple in hospitality/restaurant, education, and healthcare projects, as well as in contemporary architectural structures, such as Frank Gehry’s Toronto Art Museum façade structure and the Richmond Oval speed-skating dome.
Most designers would agree that wood, as a natural resource, is a no-brainer when it comes to sustainable design. And many manufacturers have taken the LEED (pun intended) in developing attractive and durable finishes that are also environmentally conscious. The increase in FSC certification, renewable resources, and low- and non-VOC adhesives and finishes has played a big role in bringing this seasoned material back into the limelight as a viable, sustainable option.
“The trend toward visible ‘green-ness’ has also made wood more desirable – by clients, both individual and corporate,” as the eco-friendly movement and desire for LEED certification has gained traction, says Chicago-based Dirk Denison Architect’s Leslie Johnson, an architect for the small firm’s design team.
Comfort and Color
Reasons for the shift to wood, however, do not only encompass the green mindset, according to Lois Goodell, principal and director of interior design at Boston-based CBT Architects, who mentions that corporate environments have been using wood for some time now. “There is a general warmth associated with wood, which is why I believe we are also seeing it more in healthcare and educational settings. There is the suggestion of “comfort,” “home,” and “quality” that has been used for the positive associative qualities believed to impact users.”
As such, color preferences are now leaning toward a lighter palette to reflect that warmth in golden hues. “Colors have seemed to shift from dark woods to medium tones with a warmer, almost-honey look—more brown overtones than oranges or reds,” says Goodell.
Designers in the Los Angeles office of Rotett Studio have also noticed a lightening of hues, but feel grayer tones—such as Ceruse-colored shades, light grays, and washed-out blacks—are setting the stage. “Ceruse oak woods offer a unique warmth, sophisticated style and are an alternative to classic wood finishes and wood trends from the past (although we still like classically dark wood floors). They also blend well with other woods that may live in the same space alongside them,” says Laurence Carteledge, associate at Rottet.
Applications and Species
But while the desire for wood is up, Goodell says it’s important to note that the economy is still a major factor designers must contend with. Many projects are choosing to incorporate wood but doing so sparingly and effectively. “Horizontal surfaces of desk/office configurations and exposed end panels of workstation clusters have significant impact, while filing cabinets and shelving can be painted or laminate surfaces at a cost savings.”
Clients are also scaling back on lavish wood styles, voicing a preference for more simplistic and time-tested species in the shift toward minimalism. “Species have become straighter in grain and figuring – a simpler approach considered somehow more genuine, long-lasting, or classic,” Goodell says. “Walnut and oak are popular choices.”
Of course, there will always be those who are willing to splurge. For example, there is a strong pull toward unique wood species containing dramatic grains when it comes to wall paneling in high profile areas. “When budgets allow, there’s Cerejeira Crotch, Red Gum, Oak Burl, Figured Walnuts to name a few,” says Cartledge. “These veneers can create a dramatic backdrop and or focal point for almost any interior when thoughtfully used.”
Unfortunately, financials do not always allow for the real thing, meaning designers must turn to a suitable wood-like replacements or an alternative material, such as wood veneer (which Goodell says has greatly improved in durability over the years), sheet goods, or even plastics and tile.
These materials still offer a distinctive style at a fraction of the cost of wood, says Cartledge. “Today, many porcelain tile manufacturers offer unique and sophisticated styles within their product lines…The use of Venetian Plaster can also bring life and elegance to walls that may not have a budget for wood veneer but do have a budget for more than just paint.”
Other suitable alternatives, according to Johnson, include plywood and other engineered sheets like painted MDF or products like Richlite, as well as recycled plastics, resin panels, and reconstituted stones.
Although tighter budgets and economic woes may have forced many design firms to rethink their original plans and scale back on wood applications, designers cannot deny the inherent sense of warmth and comforting luxury wood elicits when it is used effectively in a project.
“It has been my experience that wood is, and will always be, a touchstone for people in the built environment. It has a real sense of scale, tactility, and warmth—I think our clients want to harness that feeling.” says Johnson. “The pathos of wood is undeniable; though it can range from cozy to stately, the humanness is always present.”
The challenge now remaining for designers, she says, is finding ways to maximize that affect while reducing the overall amount.