Out of all of the natural timber that we work with, oak will always be our true love. I’ve heard both my husband, John, and Garry (our head of design), describe it as being ‘the king of timbers’ which I feel is such a worthy representation. Oak is a robust and truly timeless material for making furniture, flooring and panelling which gets better over time.
Structurally speaking, oak is very strong, and we’ve designed within oak-framed buildings on many occasions. If we use oak externally, and if it’s suitable for a client’s brief, we encourage them to leave it untreated, because it oxidises and transforms into a beautiful silver-grey, much like teak does. For me, watching oak develop, to respond to nature as it would without human intervention, is one of the things that makes it so captivating. Similarly, we often suggest to a client to leave internal oak untreated and unsealed. It allows the oak to develop a patina of wear and age. The less you do to it, the better it looks in the long run.
The adage, ‘you can have too much of a good thing’ is something that I have found often rings true. As much as I adore oak, it’s so crucial to open your eyes to the other timbers of the world. An everything-oak approach can lack contrast. It can cause it to lose its impact, and it can blind you to other woods that would perform just as well and may in fact be more suitable. For example, if we’re creating timber trusses in a roof, which we plan on lime washing, we would turn to a timber like Douglas fir. It’s robust and has a great texture and is more cost-effective than oak. Tulipwood has a smooth texture. It’s rather an unsung hero. It’s so high-performing and takes paint better than most timbers because of its softly-spoken wood grain and steady tone. You have to play to their strengths, and I respect that entirely.
In our February journal post, I touched on the resurgence of ‘brown furniture’ – a term often used to describe wooden antique designs. Typically, it involves lots of walnut and mahogany. These are woods that have a tight grain and a strong, stable colour that’s emphasised through differing finishing techniques such as French polishing. While it makes me very happy that society is falling back in love with furniture designs of old, I have to say my love affair never ended. At Sims Hilditch we have always celebrated the use of brown furniture in our interiors. It’s about using it appropriately and recognising balance. A home full of brown wood can appear old-fashioned and heavy. By being fully aware of each timber’s unique profile, we can sharpen our gaze and tune our ears into what wood is right for a particular home.
I was asked recently, if I had to choose four woods with which I could only ever work what would those woods be. I answered oak first, in a heartbeat. From there, I chose walnut for its wonderful warmth and Mahogany for its deep rich tones. There’s an incredible furniture maker with whom we collaborate who is based in Portugal. His cabinetry skills are spectacular and his techniques include creating shadow lines by slowly burning the timber. It’s quite remarkable. One-off commissions are always so memorable and I love the fact that they are antiques of the future.
My fourth choice? Pine, but not the nasty orange type we associate with cheap furniture. In our studio at the White Hart we have used reclaimed pine from Polish barns to clad the ceilings of our meeting room. The colour is a smoky brown from years of weathering and the texture is wonderfully knarled and gives huge atmosphere to a room. Timber will always be a huge part of my design work. Natural materials provide pulse. They make an interior come to life. Quite literally.