Conversations around design often revolve around the materials used to create a certain aesthetic. Mahogany and walnut, for instance, suggest richness and elegance. Marble offers a sense of permanence, while stainless steel is an instant pop of contemporary.
Coarse materials – such as plywood, corrugated metal or raw concrete – don’t fit into that refined company. As building and design materials go, they’ve long been thought of as black sheep. The stuff, as architect Frank Gehry once noted, “that nobody pays much attention to or even really likes.”
In the past couple of years, however, the snooty perception of these humble materials has changed.
Hotels, retail stores, restaurants and even museums are starting to incorporate raw elements into their design and decor. Walls are covered in plywood, sometimes with the spackle left smeared as the finish, or exposed natural framing. Counters are constructed from unfinished wood with the plumbing exposed. Floors are covered in jute or hemp throw rugs. And furniture is made of recycled cardboard and paper sturdy enough to sit on.
British design guru Michelle Ogundehin calls it the rise of the unpretentious or humble material and says that rather than looking down at these materials, designers and architects are increasingly using them not just for a fresh aesthetic, but because they also address social, environmental and affordability issues.
“It’s just smart,” Ogundehin says. “It taps into a hugely underutilized material tool box and gives designers a new palette to play with.”
When Alexander Lynn, creative director of the new 23-room Annex Hotel in Toronto, was looking for an architect/design firm, he turned to Studio AC, a company known for working with humble materials such as commercial steel and plywood in highly creative ways.
“We thought long and hard about what existed in the hotel world and we realized there were a slew of places offering customers fancy five-star service with doormen and spas, but nothing for an emerging class of creative types,” he says. “We wanted to do away with the frills so we could invest in other parts of the customer experience,” he adds, citing art, beds, books and vinyl records as examples.
What Studio AC provided were custom-designed rooms decorated with built-in platform beds, desks and cubbies constructed out of birch plywood. Jennifer Kudlats and Andrew Hill, co-founders of Studio AC, say plywood – readily available in various quality grades and a fraction of the cost of other woods – was the perfect choice to infuse warmth and a sense of continuity into the boutique hotel’s 23 rooms.
“They couldn’t afford a lot of purchased furniture, so we designed everything in a permanent way into the rooms,” Hill says. “Sometimes we get pushback from clients when we use plywood because people think of it as cheap. But just because we’re using a cost-effective material doesn’t mean the details are going to suffer. If it’s a well-planned design, it will be beautiful.” Kudlats adds: “In fact, it’s the play of high and low that makes the interest.”
In Montreal, designer Zébulon Perron says reclaimed wood (often with the paint left on), plywood and reused furniture have long been part of his design schemes, most recently in Montreal’s Hof Kelsten bakery.
Rather than sand and paint over the places where putty was applied to the plywood (to fill in seams), Perron left it au naturel because it because it reminded him of “flour on a bread board.”
“Budget was one of the things driving us to use plywood, but it also fulfilled our conceptual intentions,” says Perron, who also constructed a bare-bones counter space out of studs with copper plumbing exposed. “When you think of bread, it really is a humble thing: flour, water, salt and yeast. … We took a cue from the no-frills approach and incorporated it into the design, which the customers love because it’s in the spirit of revealing the nuts and bolts of the place.”
Stephanie Forsythe, co-founder of Molo Design Inc. in Vancouver, says humble materials – in her case, paper – allow designers to break free from a conformity that often burdens other more traditional building/design products.
“Paper is easy to take for granted because it’s so ubiquitous,” says Forsythe, whose company manufactures flexible wall partitions, furniture and light fixtures that have been sold to clients such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Ballet of Tokyo. “But if you look closely at paper and focus on it, you realize it has a grain to it. We love working with paper because it isn’t opulent, and because of that, it has an elegance.”
As materials go, Forsythe adds that paper is about as humble as it gets. “From an environmental standpoint it’s important to make sustainable materials choosing something that is renewable and recyclable. It doesn’t make sense to think any other way at this stage.”
Gehry, himself, made a case for that almost 50 years ago. In the early seventies, he began exposing wood studs in his buildings, started incorporating rough metals, including chain-link fence, and even designed furniture, called Easy Edges, made from cardboard.
He called it Cheapskate Architecture – a movement whose time may finally have come.