What is authentic decor? Part I: Authentic materials

Ever since I first ran across Peter Thornton’s Authentic Decor (see my review of the book here), I’ve been absorbed by the question, What do we mean by authenticity in interior design? What characterizes decor that is “authentic,” and what might this look like in practice?

This painting of a seventeenth-century Dutch interior by de Witte contains all the authentic materials discussed in this post: wood, stone, metal, glass, ceramic tiles, and natural fibers.

This painting of a seventeenth-century Dutch interior by de Witte contains all the authentic materials discussed in this post: wood, stone, metal, glass, ceramic tiles, and natural fibers.

This blog, in fact, owes its existence to my thinking about that question. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly in this social- and visual-media-soaked age, I first began to process the question on an eponymous Pinterest board several years ago. In writing a description to accompany the board, I very quickly ran out of room, and that’s when I first began to see the multiple dimensions of the problem. I write all the captions to my pins, so I was able to begin thinking through these questions that way.

My exploration of what constitutes “authentic” decor will most likely spill over into several essays, of which this is the first. So let me begin by once again paying homage to Peter Thornton and considering what he may have meant by the title of his book.

Authentic Decor is a history of Western interior design spanning three centuries. Like any good historian, Thornton is concerned with patterns of continuity and change over time. For him, each image of a room, whether it be an architectural rendering or a painting of a finished interior, represents a particular moment in design history. Thornton considers only images of rooms produced close to the time the rooms were actually decorated, and though he never says so explicitly, this is what he means by authentic decor. A room is an “authentic” representation of its period style to the extent that it typifies that style. Of course, as Thornton acknowledged, a spectrum of variation exists within each style and each historical period, but that does not prevent the design historian from positing general characteristics he or she finds to be emblematic of the style or period.

Thornton’s concept of authentic decor presumably arose out of his book project, which was strictly historical in nature. He does not extrapolate beyond the period he’s studying or make pronouncements on contemporary design. My consideration of authenticity in interior design, by contrast, takes the discussion out of the context of a strictly historical study and moves it into the realm of contemporary design and design theory. I simply use Thornton’s phrase as a springboard for other questions, and I hope that, were he alive today, this would please him.

All styles and modes of expression are contingent products of their historical development, with a significant degree of personal idiosyncrasy thrown in

I must finish laying the groundwork for this discussion with a caveat. In no way do I mean to construct an elitist distinction between decor that is authentic and decor that is somehow unauthentic or contrived. My exploration of authentic decor will inevitably reflect and, to an extent, define my own personal taste, but this in no way implies that styles or designs I don’t happen to prefer are somehow less authentic. Thornton would certainly have agreed that there is no such thing as “pure” style. All styles and modes of expression are contingent products of their historical development, with a significant degree of personal idiosyncrasy thrown in; to mix styles or periods is in no way to detract from the authenticity of a design or a room.

Let me start, then, with the basics.

Authentic decor, for me, starts with authentic materials. Here’s where my own personal bias comes in. I believe that rooms comprised of objects made entirely from natural materials are inherently calming and visually attractive. I think every room should have just a little of each of the following, and to each one in turn, I will give my unashamedly biased and untutored consideration.

Wood. Is there any more fundamental element of architecture and design? A room entirely devoid of wood, to me, feels cold and comfortless. Wood absorbs light and gives it back to you altered and softened. There’s almost nothing you can’t make out of wood, and best of all, it improves with age. There is no substitute for wooden furniture, and I submit, there never will be. Wood will never go out of style.

Stone, metal, glass, and ceramics. Like wood, these may be integrated into the architecture or simply used decoratively. Here, I must admit, my principal concern is to have as little plastic as possible in a room. Objects made from materials like untreated stone, polished metals, and glazed ceramics provide texture and weight in ways that plastics just can’t.

Natural fibers. I am a sucker for natural fibers. In fact, I insist on them. Natural fibers such as cotton, linen, wool, and silk play with light in unmistakable ways. I’ll also include leather in this category. I love embroidery, but few things bother me more than embroidery done with artificial fibers. It just catches the light all wrong. Natural fibers are pleasing to the touch and easy on the eye. When it comes to textiles that come in contact with the body, such as upholstery, cushions, sheets, and blankets, natural fibers are especially important. Wool traps heat and repels moisture and dirt; cotton, like wool, is durable and soft; linen is warm in winter, cool in summer, and delightful to touch at all times; and silk—well, what’s more luxurious and beautiful than silk?

Decorating with only authentic materials, as I have defined them, doesn't have to be hard and fast rule. I think of it simply as a general guideline for my choices. I gladly admit that the clear acrylic side table is a landmark of design history, and I’ve seen it incorporated into some much more sophisticated spaces than I’ll ever live in. The point is that good craftsmanship is worthwhile, and natural materials have a special kind of class and staying power. We are talking of the stuff of our physical existence, after all, and if it’s not pleasant to the touch, if it doesn’t reward gazing and handling, then why keep it around?

Finally—and here the historian in me comes out once again—for the vast, vast majority of human history, the basic, natural materials I’ve described above were all humanity had to work with. We didn’t have plastics or artificial fibers until the twentieth century, and both were developed in the context of the World Wars. Is that the kind of legacy I want sitting around my house? Authentic materials keep us in touch with our deeper past, and bespeak a closer connection to the earth and its bounty. That, to me, is an authenticity worth preserving.

Check out the other essays in this series on authentic decor: