Home interiors are lightening up. It has less to do with spare spaces than the hues of wood furnishings that these days often are left unstained.
On the heels of a love affair with rich espresso finishes as ubiquitous as Starbucks, and with the exotic wenge wood a model at the high end, suddenly medium and light tones look so fresh.
Several trends coexist. Woods are going au natural, celebrating their grains and leaving unmasked their blemishes and knots.
Sometimes the grain is even brought up, scraped or wire-brushed to expose it to the max, then highlighted in limed finishes that have been so prominent in European furniture shows, such as the Maison et Objet in Paris, for the last couple of years.
This whitewashing ranges in shades from blond to taupe and dove-gray that resembles weathered driftwood to a medium cafe au lait.
A strong retro vibe also has been a catalyst. When Baker Studio unveiled a new collection at North Carolina's High Point furniture market last fall, some modern pieces paid homage to Scandinavian and Asian design. With tables, stools and armoires crafted from quarter-sawn oak, the company says the grainy texture is reminiscent of coconut wood used in 1930s design.
Also from the same era are several French finishing techniques, such as light limed oak, which underscores pores and graining in creamy white and a dark limed counterpart contrasted with sable-colored grain.
The fascination with grains has even spawned translation into faux bois (French for "false wood") in accessories, ceramic or porcelain tiles and textiles that include bedding, bath towels and rugs.
When Martha Stewart launched her expansive home furnishings collection at Macy's, one category featured fetching faux bois bed sheets, towels and ceramic bath accessories, including a soap dish, toothbrush holder, lotion pump, covered jar and pitcher. Also among the designs were lamps for manufacturer Murray Feiss.
"Throughout Skylands, my retreat in the Maine woods, I've made vintage faux bois my major decorating statement," says Stewart on Macy's Web site. "I find stylized wood can punctuate a ny room with character and wit. It's simple to add rustic sophistication to your home with its natural elegance."
And furniture offerings have led to new wood contenders, alternatives to classic choices such as oak, cherry, mahogany, walnut and pine. Bamboo has been growing in popularity, both in flooring and furniture. A striking example featured in the Acacia catalog is an undulating screen that rolls into a 7-foot coil for storage.
There's teak, often considered an "outdoor" wood. In fact, it was a mid-century modern staple and an often-used element of 1950s and 1960s Scandinavian furniture. Today, many teak furniture designs are suitable for outdoor use. But with the growing sophistication of outdoor teak design, many homeowners are bringing those pieces indoors.
Now also surfacing are reclaimed materials such as Argentine cypress or plantation-grown woods such as shesham, a rosewood-like material used to craft a dining table at CB2. Made by hand with narrow slats spaced a few millimeters apart, its natural glow is maintained with light linseed oil.
Covering all the style bases, choices range from rustic -- lightened lodge to country -- to refined elegance that can team with more formal pieces.
A playful example is Lando's Gingerbread collection. The Italian-based company designed furniture inspired by Caribbean architecture. The pieces resemble cardboard cutouts, flat in some dimensions, in an unvarnished whitish oak.
In some instances, there's even an intriguing point-counterpoint. In designing a 66-inch-tall decorative wall mirror, one designer plays on the notions of natural and manmade. Long planks of myrtle or American sycamore asymmetrically frame the mirror from manufacturer APF Munn. But a subtle decoration is eye-catching as it adds sparkle and a surprising dress-up to the rough-hewn design. Filling ever-so-skinny cracks in the wood's surface are Swarovski crystals.
"The planks have been minimally processed to retain the inherent uniqueness and expressive qualities of live wood," says Lena Kim of the designing Rockwell Group. "The natural cracks are filled with hundreds of tiny hand-applied crystals. We like the texture and feeling these materials bring to a space."
A longstanding argument for introducing wood into an interior (with flooring, moldings, furnishings or window treatments like shutters or blinds) is for the warmth it brings.
"Wood is grounding for people," says Jennifer Sypeck, director of product trends for Smith and Hawken. "There's also a backlash to disposable stuff, to plastics, to the shiny and new. We're looking for more tactile surfaces, something to touch and feel connected to nature."
Current fare at Smith and Hawken includes a lightly distressed honey-gray ash farmhouse dining collection, which includes a buffet and hutch-console, designed for casual indoor or sheltered outdoor use and crafted in northern Italy.
Sypeck says more organic accessories made of mango and pumani wood are coming in the fall.
"Everyone wants something personalized," she says. "That's the beauty of it. A single piece of wood has a specific grain and knot. Each is different. It's not purist to one style. It's more eclectic."
Many of these newcomers are sustainable, which gives them cache as part of the ever-growing green movement. They're ecologically friendly, plantation-grown or reclaimed.
A Dallas-based company, Groovy Stuff, has developed an entire product line designed with reclaimed teakwood furniture from Thailand that is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. Some borders on funky, with assemblages that feature antique farm implements, yokes, plows, sugarcane grinders and wagons repurposed into tables or benches.
Organic shapes also play into woodsy furnishing designs. That translates to furniture made of twisted vines, gnarly stools crafted from tree trunks, tables with log legs, and bowls with textured bark-like cladding.
It's a different take on the hippie generation's tree-hugging, especially in terms of design and price. A recent Neiman Marcus catalog featured a 78-inch-tall floor lamp with a base of twisted natural vines in a bleached finish. It sells for $1,275.
Another look just plucked from the forest is a pedestal table spotted in the Tracy Porter catalog. The grove table's base resembles a tree trunk with curvy roots wrapping around it. The table is 27 1/2 inches in height and diameter and sells for $1,100.
"I love the rustic feel that natural untreated wood brings into my home," says designer Porter. "I adore the fact that each one differs slightly, making it truly one of a kind and an absolute treasure. And, of course, I do like the slight imperfections. With four boys, slight imperfections are definitely welcome, as they tend to add their own layer."
The more literal pieces may be too strong for some, or an acquired taste. But organic accessories can blend into a variety of decors. There are many uses for the sinuously shaped vessels offered by Pottery Barn in its spring catalog. Carved from a single piece of mango wood that's been hollowed out, the bowls have a ruffled or fluted appearance, and the craggy grain is clearly visible. It's a beautiful, natural container for apples or oranges or a fabulous potted plant.
And a footed Acacia wood salad bowl available at Crate and Barrel will never go out of style. With care, its glowing golden-to-walnut grain can be admired for generations.
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-- Acacia, (800) 944-0474 or www.acaciacatalog.com.
-- APF Munn, (914) 665-5400 or apfmunn.com.
-- Crate and Barrel, (800) 996-9960 or www.crateandbarrel.com.
-- Martha Stewart Collection for Macy's, (800) 289-6229 or www.macys.com/marthastewartcollection.
-- Neiman Marcus, (800) 825-8000 or www.neimanmarcus.com.
-- Pottery Barn, (800) 922-5507 or www.potterybarn.com.
-- Smith and Hawken, (800) 981-9888 or www.smithandhawken.com.
-- Tracy Porter, (866) 388-7229 or www.tracyporter.com.
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CAPTIONS AND CREDITS
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H-1: Naturally occurring splits, cracks and knots draw out the rustic beauty of this solid European white oak table. Each of its legs is crafted from a single piece of heartwood, exposing the tree's rings. The Big Sur table is finished in polished wax and sells for $1,699 from Crate and Barrel. The bench is $749. CREDIT: Crate and Barrel
H-2: A honey-gray finish with light distressing suggests the look of weathered furniture just brought in from the garden. The solid ash farmhouse buffet and hutch is designed for indoor or sheltered outdoor use. The buffet sells for $1,099, and the hutch/console retails for $489 from Smith and Hawken. CREDIT: Smith and Hawken
H-3: Natural grove roots make an intriguing base for a table. Teamed with a French-style chair and a bamboo-framed ottoman covered in a fetching red floral hand-painted leather, the table suits the high styling around it. It sells for $1,100 from Tracy Porter. CREDIT: Tracy Porter
H-4: Martha Stewart's faux bois towels have a woodsy look but are super soft, made from combed cotton. Part of her collection at Macy's, the towels are available in taupe with aqua (top), ivory, honey and brown. The bath towel retails for $22, the hand towel is $14, and the washcloth is $10. CREDIT: Macy's
H-5: This screen rolls any way you want it, to fit any space. At its widest, it is 8 feet long and stands 6 feet tall, rolling into a coil that stores into a neat 7 inches. Crafted from renewable, eco-friendly bamboo, the screen has a water-based finish, is available in honey or chocolate and sells for $259 from Acacia. CREDIT: Acacia
H-6: A solid-oak chest in a slat design has a hand-rubbed oil finish that brings out the natural character of the wood. The Elan four-drawer chest is $1,199, and the matching mirror is $299. An armoire (not pictured) is $1,899, all from Crate and Barrel. CREDIT: Crate and Barrel