The Unvarnished Truth

Here's why materials that age naturally are (often) the best choice for interiors, and how you can incorporate them into your next project.

by Andrew Franz, AIA

For years, pure durability has ruled the design kingdom. Interiors of all kinds have been covered from ceiling to floor with materials and products boasting of long life-cycles with little degradation of their original, like-new looks.

But as technological advancements in finish materials steadily marched forward, many designers forgot to ask if that was truly the most desirable goal. In many cases, the results are plastified, impermeable and highly polished surfaces that offer little warmth or connection to the natural world—something humans innately crave.

It can be summed up in a word, biophilia, which refers to the natural and instinctive bond between human beings and other living things, as identified by Edward O. Wilson in his book of the same name.

This isn’t merely love of nature; some of us prefer the city over the lakes and mountains. But a minimally treated wood surface? It has an allure that’s hard to explain. This attraction has been dissected in a more recent book by Wilson protégée Stephen R. Kellert, entitled Biophilic Design. Skip past the sections on biophilic urbanism and geomorphology to the chapter named “Biophilic Architecture and Neurological Nourishment.” There, we learn how a simple, natural surface serves a deeper need in all of us.

Or skip the intellectual rationales altogether. People love wood, plain and simple. Naturally beautiful, with a mysteriously real texture, wood is substantial and appeals to all five senses.

The secret of much successful interior architecture is to present untreated woods and other natural surfaces—cork, stone, metals, wool fabrics and more—to the occupant. The result appeals not only because the materials age well and often feel right for the occasion; just as we feel healthier in a room filled with natural daylight, we respond more positively to these living surfaces composed of natural materials, treated or coated minimally—or not at all.

natural potential
The trend of increased use of organic, lightly treated surfaces brings the designer full circle. Copper, once prized for its natural patina, can be treated with modern methods to retain its original color, but biophilia-sensitive designers prefer the look of naturally aged and weathered copper, which somehow nourishes the spirit more so than its coated counterpart.

Just as patrons prefer the unbleached napkins at their local café, they feel safer touching natural-looking wood and distressed surfaces like reclaimed barn boards. Instead of only super-new, super-polished surfaces, the new zeitgeist favors the rougher and more handmade—which, whether it’s actually true or not, can suggest a more sustainable approach.

To specify the look, designers should consider the use of catalyzed finishes, which are thin but effective coatings favored by many cabinetmakers. According to wood finishing expert Ron Bryze, catalyzed finishes can include types of lacquers, conversion varnishes, polyurethanes, polyesters and even some vinyl sealers. Made up of long molecular strands, the finishes are harder and more resistant to water and chemicals. Unlike shellacs or conventional lacquers, catalyzed finishes will not melt into the previous coat once dry; to get adhesion, the finisher has to sand between coats.

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