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The lure of nature has never been stronger. Authentic, robust, practical and revitalizing, natural decorating is not so much a style, more a way of life. Today, trends in decorating come and go at a confusing rate; a style that might once have defined a decade is now outmoded in a season. To have been a dedicated follower of interior fashion over the past ten years would have required considerable reserves of time and money, not to mention an unflagging appetite for change. This accelerated pace cannot help but encourage a superficial attitude to the interior, as one look after another is flung off in favour of the latest fad.
Natural decorating, by contrast, takes a long view. Materials that age well and improve with the years, furnishings that bring comfort, simplicity and practicality to the forefront, timeless surfaces and finishes that are both easy on the eye and environmentally friendly provide an antidote to the pressures of life. There will always be room for novelty, but we are beginning to appreciate the value of rooms that serve as real backgrounds for living rather than as stage sets for conspicuous consumption.
The strength of this approach lies in its versatility. Like clothing that allows the personality of the individual wearer to shine through, natural decorating works in many different contexts, enhancing basic qualities of light and space rather than imposing a grand fashion statement. In country settings, where homespun materials reinforce the link between indoors and out, the natural look makes perfect sense. Elegantly understated in traditional period rooms, fresh and positive in more contemporary surroundings, naturaldecorating transcends conventional distinctions between town and country, period and modern, exotic and vernacular.
The matt, chalky colours of natural paints and rich earth or vegetable tones of natural dyes, the easy-going sympathy of wood, stone and terracotta, the refined simplicity of linen, calico, muslin, wicker and raffia are all elements that have a long history of use in interior decoration. Today, the traditional virtues of such natural ingredients are ripe for rediscovery. As ecological awareness sharpens, natural decorating provides the added satisfaction of creating a healthier environment and making better use of resources.
Reasons to be natural
In recent years, interest in historical forms of decorating has grown and grown, bringing a greater awareness of the variety, refinement and artistry of old skills and methods. For those who have grown up with the notion that painting simply consists of pouring emulsion (latex) into a tray and rolling it onto the wall, the subtlety of these all but forgotten techniques has been a revelation. Equally surprising is the discovery that it is not merely the methods that are responsible for such evocative effects, but also the basic ingredients, and that despite its many disadvantages, a distempered wall, for example, has infinitely more character than one coated with vinyl silk emulsion.
It is a mistake, as historians of interior decoration would point out, to confuse historically authentic methods and materials with 'natural' ones. This is particularly true of paint. There is nothing natural, in the sense of harmless or healthy, about lime, arsenic, lead or mercury, all common components of early finishes and pigments. Our ancestors simply did not have access to or knowledge of the industrial processes that supply us with the huge range of synthetic materials to be found in every corner of our homes today, from the fibres in our carpets to the polish on our furniture. In the past, people built, decorated and furnished their homes with what was to hand, which of necessity was what the earth produced: animal, vegetable or mineral. Materials harvested, mined, hewn or quarried locally were used to create buildings that effectively grew out of the landscapes in which they were sited.
Modern synthetic products have delivered enormous short-term advantages. They are often, though not always, cheaper and they have generally been designed to offer a number of specific practical benefits: easy care, easy application or installation, and resistance to abrasion, infestation or rot.
The disadvantages of these materials, however, take a little time to understand. You only have to spend a day wearing a nylon shirt to appreciate the superiority of cotton, but the drawbacks of nylon fibres in your carpeting may take longer to discover. When choosing clothing, we are drawn to natural materials, which feel better on the skin and which soften and wear attractively. In general terms, the same basic comparison can be made between artificial and natural materials in the home. While there is something utterly forlorn about aged synthetics, the patina of old wood or weathered stone flags is both uplifting and reassuring.
Lurking behind this aesthetic preference is the desire for continuity. This is not merely the continuity of tradition, the satisfaction of using materials that have been employed for thousands of years, but a deeper sense of connection with nature itself. We can see the living source of wood in the pattern of grain on a table top, but who, besides a petrochemical technician, could name the polymers in melamine? Industrial production, particularly on the scale and of the complexity it has attained in the postwar years, has a distancing effect, severing all kinds of links which have been woven into human society over many centuries. Enthusiasm for natural products can be seen as a reflection of our desire to re-forge these links. Nostalgia may be a suspect emotion, but it is far from new. Ever since the Industrial Revolution there have been concerted efforts to preserve connections both with nature itself and with the traditional crafts and skills implied in the use of natural materials. William Morris and his followers in the Arts and Crafts Movement harked back to pre-Renaissance days to identify with the artisanship of craftsmen working on the great medieval cathedrals. The Middle Ages were the starting point for Morris's revival of all types of craft, from the art of making stained glass windows to the process of extracting natural dyes from vegetable matter. The fact that the craft aesthetic still flourishes today owes much to his efforts, as does the fact that we have learned to revere old farmhouse kitchens as much as grand state rooms.
It is easy to poke fun at the idea of sophisticated people yearning for the simple life. But it is a yearning that just will not go away. Many people deliberately seek to satisfy it at least once a year when they go away on holiday. Country cottages, beach huts or Greek island villas all offer elemental settings that help to refresh the spirits. If we go to such lengths, and distances, to enjoy the revitalizing benefits of nature, why shouldn't we endeavour to make our everyday surroundings more natural themselves?
At the end of the twentieth century the strongest argument in favour of natural decorating must be ecological. Natural materials, which ultimately return to the earth, which are renewable and sustainable, are self-evidently better in the long run than materials that pollute, deplete precious resources and create unacceptable residues as a consequence of their production. We do not know the real long-term health effects of many of the chemicals and additives that routinely permeate our homes, but the damage they have already caused to the environment as a whole cannot be disputed.
Natural decorating should not be seen as a way of urging an impossibly 'green' lifestyle. Houses can only be thoroughly ecological when they are designed and built with that specific intention. For most of us, it is not an either/or issue, rather an accumulative process by which we gradually question the relevance and value of synthetic substitutes for the real thing. Just as public concern with healthier eating has prompted food manufacturers to remove unnecessary additives and alter production methods, it is likely that an increasing awareness of the drawbacks of artificial materials, which promise so much but deliver so little, will foster a return to the natural basics that have served so well for many centuries.
Sources of inspiration
Natural decorating embraces a whole family of linked approaches, deriving from vernacular traditions as well as contemporary styles.
One aspect of natural decorating takes the vibrancy and vitality of ethnic artefacts and craftwork as a point of departure. Dhurries from India, batik from Indonesia, South American applique, printed African cloths, glowing Mexican ceramics, woven rattan and wicker are no longer regarded as the exotic souvenirs of a global trek, but the common stock-in-trade purveyed in many high street shops. The expanding network of communications with far-flung corners of the world has led to a renewed appreciation of indigenous skills, and natural materials and colourings. Even if the vernacular is not our own, we can still appreciate the direct relationship between maker and product, the subtle variations from piece to piece and the unselfconscious artistry of such handiwork.
Another source of influence comes from the calm spaces of the traditional Japanese house and garden. When Japan reopened trading links with the West in the mid-nineteenth century, the effect on European artists, designers and architects was electrifying. On the popular level, the cult of Japan was rapidly translated into the superficial: peacock feathers and fans, Japanese-style porcelain and latticed or lacquered furniture were instantly fashionable. But the Japanese aesthetic had a more profound and lasting influence on the designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who sought to challenge the density, clutter and artificiality of Victorian decorating. The traditional Japanese house seemed to offer the perfect balance between art and nature, decoration and simplicity.
A century later, the Japanese aesthetic is valued for very much the same reasons. Nature is central to the idea of the Japanese house, both in its symbolism and in its use of materials. Tatami, floor mats of woven straw edged with linen, provide the module for room size; their slightly springy surface cushions the rough wood floor. Sliding screens covered in thick paper provide internal divisions and can be pushed back to open small rooms into one large space. A small recess, or tokonoma, serves as a place for the display of art objects or flowers. Closets house clothing, rolls of bedding and other household articles, stowed away when not in use in order to leave the floor space clear. The severe formality is complemented by an ever-present sense of nature. Wooden support posts and beams may be left in a natural state, sometimes with the bark intact; windows may be screened with mulberry paper shoji, doorways with bamboo bead curtains, elegantly fusing structure, decoration and material. Outdoors, the formal arrangement of rocks, raked gravel, water, lanterns, dwarf trees and shrubs summarizes the elemental forces of nature.
Western traditions, enshrined in log cabins, cob houses, tithe barns and thatched cottages, provide another powerful source of influence. Whether such traditions are expressed in the simplicity of a Shaker interior or the honest exposure of brick, stone or timber in an old farmhouse, an appreciation of natural elements often lurks behind our absorbing interest in the rural past.
But natural decorating need not imply an exotic or backward-looking approach. Modern design, with its well-worn credo 'less is more', has concentrated attention on the structural realities of the interior, the direct expression of materials, the play of light and the use of colour, texture and pattern without recourse to imitation or pastiche. Natural materials and finishes fit well into this type of aesthetic, offering their own inbuilt interest and character.
On an even more basic level, the impulse for natural decorating can arise simply from an affection for landscape. Stuck in traffic, cocooned in office blocks or housed in uniform city streets, the thirst for natural surroundings becomes ever more acute. The elements with which we surround ourselves can be alienating—or not. By acting as a reminder of the natural world, prosaic mementoes such as shells, beach stones and driftwood, and fundamental qualities such as the grain of floorboards and freshness of cotton, soothe the senses and serve to redress the balance.
Creating a natural scheme
Natural decorating cannot really be reduced to a neat formula; there are as many ways of creating the look as there are reasons for doing so. Natural decorating is often identified with the calm neutrality of white on white, or the reticent combination of pale woods, unbleached natural fibres, stone and matting. This interpretation turns a room into a refuge, a retreat from the clamour of colour and sensation that accompanies everyday life. The more frenetic and pressured our lives become, the more urgent our need for peaceful, comfortable surroundings where we can refresh our spirits and recover a sense of equilibrium.
Banishing clutter and colour from a room, however, will not necessarily result in a sense of Zen-like calm. Achieving this kind of simplicity is not as straightforward as merely paring away superfluous detail: near-empty rooms can be bland and featureless if you do not pay attention to scale, texture, contrast and, surprisingly enough, colour.
A decorative scheme which is based on the use of white or neutral tones needs to be composed as carefully as one which is teeming with colour and pattern. To begin with, you cannot assume that all whites are the same. The pure unadulterated white of whitewash, for example, will tend to make other less pure whites look dirty by comparison. Different whites, different textures and different surfaces will all reflect light in their own ways: some will look shiny and glossy, others matt, others more textured. To create a harmonious neutral background, it is necessary to assemble samples of the various textures and finishes and assess combinations that will work together successfully. The same basic approach also holds true for neutral tones in the spectrum from cream to light brown—the sandy, grey or biscuit shades prevalent in natural unfinished wood, fabric and stone. Some tints may be warmer, some cooler, and not all will work together sympathetically.
Textural contrast can go a long way to distract from tonal differences. Many successful rooms have been created using closely related tones and textures, but the risk of a rather numbing uniformity is high. Provided smooth is counterpoised with rough, matt with glossy, the danger of blandness recedes.
Another variable is scale. In rooms where nothing is highly coloured or patterned, emphasis can come from juxtaposing small areas of detail with the outsize. Large sofas conceal their bulk under white loose (slip) covers; displays of twigs or branches add theatricality to muted surroundings. You can have fun with proportional tricks in rooms that otherwise pull their punches.
But natural decorating does not necessarily imply avoidance of strong colour. There is nothing subdued about nature, nor do natural pigments and materials offer a limited palette of discreet neutral shades. Forest green, poppy red, ochre and indigo are every bit as natural in derivation and mood as more delicate tones. Provided the sources of such colours are natural in themselves, colour mixing is not a problem. As William Morris's experiments with natural dyes confirmed, you can combine any number of such colours without stridency. And as far as natural dyes are concerned, these shades fade in unison with each other, retaining their innate balance even when worn. The same is not true of more synthetic shades. If you are looking for a more colourful version of natural decorating, the combinations will more or less take care of themselves.
With the emphasis on the colour, pattern and texture of materials, there is less need for clutter in the interior. Natural ingredients seem to need room to breathe. This does not rule out a sense of liveliness or variety. One of the best lessons that can be learned from the natural world is its essential changefulness, and responding to nature means keeping in touch with seasonal alterations in light, mood and growth that can be observed in the landscape. Changing displays and furnishings to reflect the atmosphere of different times of the year is an obvious way of keeping interiors alive.
Windows and Doors
Fittings and Furnishings
The Eco-Friendly Interior
Author Biography: Elizabeth Wilhide has written several books on interior design, including Original Home Design, Laura Ashley Windows, and The French Room. Joanna Copestick is a writer and editor specializing in interiors an design. She is the author of House Beautiful: Choosing and Using Lighting. Both live in Great Britain.