Use This, Not That
By Tiffany Meyers, September 27, 2010
What’s on designer don’t lists? Five designers share their list of verboten materials — along with the alternatives they use instead.
Never say never? Well, not unless your hand is forced. Think chinchilla fur. Or popcorn ceilings. Sometimes, “over my dead body” is the only reasonable option. We asked five designers to name the one material that they would never, ever, not for a pile of money and a lifetime supply of cake, use in an interior. Then we found out what they’d go for instead. The common thread: authenticity. Each in their way, these designers confirm the importance of honesty in materials.
Tom Polucci, director of interior design, HOK Chicago, can’t say there’s one specific material he’d rule out altogether. Rather, he believes in using authentic materials wherever possible, whether reclaimed or locally sourced. “What’s great is that, today, we have so many products available to us,” he says.
For wood flooring alone, Polucci can choose from solid wood, end grain wood, cork or bamboo. But not every budget can accommodate wood flooring. What then? Polucci finds a different but equally authentic solution: He might leave the concrete floors exposed, for instance, or recommend linoleum, a floor covering made of renewable materials.
“Using an authentic material in an unconventional way is also a great way to create more impact,” he adds. For HOK’s office, the firm reclaimed some teak flooring, using the warm, salvaged wood to create a striking wall panel at the entrance. And in a beneficent twist, it would have cost more to make custom veneer panels than it did to repurpose the solid teak flooring.
In the past, Ron Radziner, design principal at Los Angeles’ Marmol Radziner Architects, avoided wall-to-wall carpeting because of the chemicals involved. But even now, with greener options on the market, Radziner steers clear for the sake of the space. “Wall-to-wall always has a sense of being temporary,” he says. “You know it’s going to be replaced in a couple of years.”
Does it ever work? Well, maybe in a very chic, sexy bedroom that calls for ultraplush materials. But ultimately, Radziner prefers wood floors. If a room starts getting too hard-surface-y, you can always throw down a rug.
Radziner is excited about developments in engineered wood flooring, which looks and feels like solid wood but is higher performing and more ecologically responsible. The brands he likes — Schotten & Hansen, Stile and Exquisite Surfaces — use only a layer of slow-growing hardwood, thereby saving resources. That layer is placed atop a subsurface of fast-growing wood. In climates that swing from hot to cold, an engineered wood floor is more stable than ever-expanding and contracting solid wood. “In five or six years, I think it’s really going to be all that there is,” says Radziner.
They say ultrasuede is a miracle fabric: stain resistant and ultradurable. For Sarah Richardson, host and co-producer of “Sarah’s House” on HGTV and principal of Toronto’s Sarah Richardson Design, it’s plain old ick. “I’m always drawn to natural materials and shy away from anything that’s trying to be something else,” she says. “Impostors and fakes aren’t invited to my design party.”
When a room calls for fabrics with a soft, cushy texture, she’d far rather use velvet, which she loves for its natural richness and Old World elegance. It also happens to give ultrasuede a run for its money in the durability department. “Cotton velvet wears like iron,” says Richardson. Options with an antiqued or strie face are even more forgiving.
The only place that she hasn’t used velvet: on the walls. And now that she’s thought of it, the walls had better look out. “I can’t think of anywhere I wouldn’t use velvet, except maybe my kitchen stools — I’ve got little girls with sticky fingers.”
Nothing brings a room down faster than the use of artificial flowers or plants, says Jan Showers, president of Dallas’ Jan Showers & Associates. “I’ve seen rooms with incredibly expensive furnishings and a large fake plant in the corner,” says Showers. “Suddenly, the room has lost something valuable: authenticity.”
She understands the impulse. Corners are tough. They demand attention and want to be filled. Rather than a fake plant or flower arrangement, opt for a resilient orchid, says Showers. If the light is adequate, it’ll last longer than some pieces of furniture. Showers also recommends the forgiving Kentia palm, which tolerates lower light levels and infrequent watering.
Still, some people simply don’t want to maintain indoor plants. In those cases, Showers finds other, more creative ways to treat corners. Pedestals offer versatility, because they can hold a hold a sculpture or a flower arrangement, while large metal garden pieces create a casual, bring-the-outdoors-in mood. Finally, decorative screens are Showers’ favorite corner solutions, because so often, they’re not just pieces of furniture but works of art.
Years ago, Brad Weesner of Bradweesnerdesign in Frederick, Md., spent some time hunting duck, when he developed the conviction that people should hunt only what they’d use or eat. That extends to interiors. He’s willing to use byproducts of items that are already manufactured or consumed, including leather or down, but he has no interest in products like mink, chinchilla, eel skin or ivory.
Synthetic skins, leathers and furs are as luxurious as the real deal these days, but Weesner is disinclined to use those as well. “Even faux animal prints help propagate the desire to acquire real skins,” he says, “which supports the poaching of animals in Africa and around the world.”
The world is full of infinitely more unusual surface materials, from textiles into which real gold fibers are woven to Swarovski crystal-studded fabrics. In one Washington, D.C., basement, Weesner created a feeling of expansiveness through reflective materials, including a subtly pearlescent ceiling paint. Fine, metallic threads woven into Lee Jofa upholstery provide additional shimmer. “I don’t see anywhere in that room where, say, a white chinchilla throw would have helped it.”