They say what goes around comes around, and that’s especially true for design, where past trends often resurface in new, contemporary ways. But 2022 may see a comeback of one of the most ancient design practices yet, thanks to the West’s rediscovery of Asian aesthetic approaches that originated during China’s Ming Dynasty and in medieval Japan.
For the Chinese, it was about finding rare slabs of marble that evoked images of mountains, clouds, and other natural phenomena in their veining. For the Japanese, it was a method of charring wood to create a beautiful, as well as functional, finish capable of withstanding the strongest storms. Both practices champion innovative treatments of natural materials and, half a millennium on, are being used by top architects and designers to enhance our homes.
Into the Wood
One of the new year’s most in-demand trends has its roots in the ancient Japanese technique of Shou Sugi Ban, a process in which the surface of wood is charred, preserving and weatherproofing it without chemicals, paints, or other surface treatments.
This hallmark of Asian design, traditionally performed on Sugi or Japanese cedar wood, is currently cladding homes from Cheshire to Colorado. Its revival is largely thanks to aficionados in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands who are enthusiastically taking a torch to wood and creating the most beautiful effects.
I’m now burning wood to clad an entire house in Aspen, inside and out
It’s a natural fit for architect Chad Oppenheim, who explains that his practices in Miami, Los Angeles, and Basel are “all about creating experiences that connect people with the earth.” But although he’s lived in Japan, Oppenheim confesses that his introduction to Shou Sugi Ban came about thanks to Maarten Baas, a Dutch artist and designer whose work is collected by museums such as MoMA, as well as celebrity clientele.
“I was so intrigued by what Baas calls his ‘burnt chair’ that I bought two,” Oppenheim explains. “That led me to discover what an incredible process Shou Sugi Ban is.” He keeps one of these Smoke Chairs—which Baas creates by setting the piece alight and leaving it to smoulder—in his Miami home’s meditation room, where he’s replicated the effect with a charred finish on the walls. “I have the second in my home in Colorado,” he says, adding that it’s provided inspiration for his projects: “I’m now burning wood to clad an entire house in Aspen, inside and out.”
Dallas-based interior designer Jacquin Headen has sourced a beautiful tree-trunk table made using Shou Sugi Ban. While she admits that not everyone is “ready for the intense black color at a time when light wood is preferred,” she notes that a lighter, more caramelized char is also possible.
In the UK, Dwayne Griffin, managing director of Carbon By Design, torches larch, cypress, and other woods he believes are more suitable for cold, windy climates than the traditional cedar. In the five years he’s been operating, he’s seen the market for charred wood grow exponentially. As well as supplying British architects from his Yorkshire factory, he and his team now export their products throughout Europe. “It’s wanted for cladding, decking, gates, and I’m currently fulfilling a commission for a table,” he says.
Gaining your Marbles
Having lived in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Singapore, as well as New York, Katharine Pooley, an international designer now based in the UK, readily acknowledges the extent to which her work is influenced by Asian design. The centuries-old Chinese practice of finding images in marble walls, floors, and accents is on the rise in the West, she says, explaining that the demanding nature of the technique makes it all the more appealing.
“It’s not easy; marble is a complicated material and, as it’s so valuable, you’ve got to get it right,” she says. She points out that the veining in Chinese marble is also quite different to that sourced in Italy, Iran, Brazil, and elsewhere, for which the technique of “book-matching” must be used to create mountains and other patterns that evoke landscapes.
“That means examining slabs in detail,” Pooley continues, “and it’s not just about the selection of the slab, but also who lays the marble.” But, she says, the prized material can enrich homes in ways clients may not have thought of. “I love marble door surrounds, architraves, shadow gaps, and cornicing details,” she adds.
New York-based Champalimaud Design takes the technique beyond the bathroom, where marble is most commonly used. “We’ve used it as eagerly on kitchen backsplashes as on broad feature walls,” says partner Winston Kong, who waxes lyrical about the effects. “Book-matching marble creates a moment of striking beauty; there is something about the symmetrical flow that elevates it from a stone wall to a grand painting.”
I love marble, because no two blocks are ever the same, so whatever pattern is created will be unique to that client
Sam Hart, a designer at London’s Roundhouse Design, recommends marble to clients who are interested in adding a bespoke touch. “Marble has been used in kitchens for centuries, and nothing else can replace its organic, natural appearance. At Roundhouse, we take it beyond splashbacks, on to worktops and islands, and even a cantilevered table.”
To make it work, she advises that the marble must be cut from one slab and that clients should choose the material themselves. She particularly loves the random beauty discovered in the selection process: “Some slabs have fossils embedded in them, while others have metallic threads running through.”
Also using marble to customize and elevate new-build homes is Nicola Hughes, an interior architect at London-based Alexander James Interiors. She singles out the interesting effects that can be achieved by book-matching quarters as well as halves of a single slab of marble.
“It’s like folding the pages of a book and seeing all kinds of shapes and patterns emerge with lots of figurement and movement. I’ve seen diamonds and hearts created where veins join, and water puddles as well as mountains. I love marble, because no two blocks are ever the same, so whatever pattern is created will be unique to that client.”
Banner image: Striking book-matched marble in a kitchen created by Roundhouse Design