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The Irish Times – Rustic Revolution

With the grain Salcombe table by John Lee

The dark days are over in wooden furniture, it’s now about pale, raw pieces, says CATHY O’CLERY.

A NEW RUSTIC REVOLUTION is sweeping Europe and, through our top artisans, Ireland is on track to reap the benefits. Dark wooden furniture – once to be found in the contemporary urban lairs of the hip and happening, and the favoured finish for many high-end hotels, such as The Morrison – its rich polish, which worked with the sharp-edged lines of contemporary style, is getting decidedly old hat.

But, as has often been mentioned on these pages, design reactes to the times and wood finishes are dramatically changing, caught up in the throes of a bigger style revolution sweeping Europe. Ostentatious glamour is out – unless you live in Russia – and in its place comes rustic-chic. Instead of dark wood and brown leather, it’s now raw wood and stonewashed linen.

The new look may be inspired by all things rustic but today’s application is anything but humble. Leading the way, as always, are the Scandinavians, who have the added advantage of a ready supply of timber on their doorstep.

This new Nordic approach keeps the clean lines and contemporary sophistication intrinsic to the Scandinavian style but it is now textured in raw oak, chestnut and birch.

Such timbers were very much in evidence throughout Maison et Objet held in Paris in January. The Dutch and Belgians have been playing with these rustic finishes for quite a while – the Dutch more quirky and industrial, the Belgians luxurious and broody.

But for a fashion to really take off, we have to look to the French, the masters at cultivating a trend and making it a high-end style statement. True to form Parisian companies have exploited this look to the max.

Just because the finish is raw, does not make it necessarily cheap. The dark wood trend worked well through every level of the market because it was easy to stain cheap veneers and clad it on to MDF or plywood.

A raw wood finish shows the true talent of the wood-worker so it is a hard style to fake; the quality of the wood and workmanship is laid bare for all to see. Working with untreated wood is also a lengthy process because quality timbers take a long time to dry – over a year in most cases. (Though the term “raw” is used, many pieces are in fact finished with oils or low-sheen lacquers for practical reasons).

All of this is good news for Irish design because we have an inherent sense of natural style. Also, we do not have the facilities or heavy industry to produce furniture en masse so artisanal manufacturing is where our focus has been and should be.

One of the new stars of Showcase Ireland, held in the RDS around the same time as Maison et Objet, was wood turner Matt Jones, who not only showed a knowledgeable respect for his material but has that rare ability to take something traditional and give it a contemporary twist.

The show-stealer was his elegant bar stool – an object we are all too familiar with – but Jones created something spot-on with current developments. It was raw in finish, restrained in design and refined in style.

Equally desirable were his spalted beech candlesticks. How lovely, even, the language of wood – spalting appears when timber has been left in its fallen state to decompose a while. Organisms get into the grain and leave thin black lines which give a pleasing finish when the wood is turned.

Wood as a material has the advantage that most people have an inherent understanding of its quality, which is why rustic chic is gaining popularity. In a recession, when people do buy, they want to invest in something of perceived value; a piece that shows provenance and craftsmanship. As Dena Nolan of Bunbury Boards explains, it’s in the human psyche to love wood. “People do love trees, quite a few have fond memories based around trees and their childhood experiences, where they had tree houses, swings or hideouts in trees. Or one has stood in the garden for years or even been a comforting landmark on the road.”

Which is why Bunbury, based in the country estate of Lisnavagh, in Co Carlow, is ticking the right trend boxes. Not only are its boards made of hardwood, from sustainable Irish woodland, but their biggest seller is the Waney Edge board. Waney, another lovely wood word, means that one side shows the natural edge of the tree.

What’s more, the individual boards come with a pedigree people love. Each one is numbered, enabling buyers, through the Bunbury website, to find out what tree was used to create their board. “Our traceability is unique, it was originally used to manage the trees on Lisnavagh Estate, but we now detail all logs and trees that we acquire from outside sources. It has become an integral part of the Bunbury Board and the majority of board owners do look up their report and are delighted that we take such care in detailing all we know about each tree,” says Nolan.

One of our top artisans, John Lee, is a master craftsman when it comes to wood. His contoured and sandblasted furniture pieces are collectors’ items. He has been working with raw finishes since 2006, and there was an overwhelming positive reaction to his piece Carrigeen which is in the National Museum at Collins Barracks.

“I am trying to let the client experience some of the sensual experiences I feel while working with the wood,” he says. “It’s a beautifully tactile material in its natural state, with each species having its own distinct and refreshing aroma. Why cover all this up under layers of lacquer?”

Why indeed? No doubt, as with most trends, the rustic-chic look will filter down to all aspects of the market and poorer versions of raw wood furniture will soon appear. But now is a great time to celebrate the style and watch what our talented artisans are doing.