The very first driftwood decor was likely created by a Stone Age hostess to impress guests at her fish fry. Since then, the sinuous shapes and silvery patina of nature's offcuts have seduced millennia of beachcombers - and not always with brilliant results: Think kitschy sixties driftwood lamps.
Today, though, design companies are kicking it up a notch. French firm Bleu Nature, which hits Gallic beaches twice a year to hand-pick wood, creates striking haute-whimsical lighting, room dividers and furniture. A series of worn logs are turned, for example, into short, fairytale-esque stools, while a cage of stark white branches form a fantastical wingback chair.
The firm's philosophy is all about respecting its found materials: "Enhancing a form's imperfections, revealing a fragment's peculiarity, featuring a curve's elegance, respecting a knot's uniqueness … it takes time to give birth to emotion," its website reads.
And while the objects are shaped and configured using power tools, their surfaces "need no further processing because the water has frozen them in time forever."
Bernard Le Corre, co-owner of Toronto design shop Trianon, has been selling Bleu Nature lamps for 15 years. "The driftwood is collected by the team that makes the lamps," he says. "So they know what to look for and how they will use it."
Le Corre is a driftwood devotee, citing its "earthy, gentle" colours - a subtle palette of silvery greys, cool blues and warm umbers - as well as its sculptural qualities. Inherent in its endlessly varied forms are "movement and shape," qualities that invite imaginative transformation.
Crate & Barrel's dramatic driftwood tables have a similar sculptural presence. The wood comes from Java, where villagers combing the beach for firewood set aside special pieces to sell to artisans. The sea-battered roots and limbs "are kiln-dried and built into one-of-a-kind table bases," says Cathy Miller of Crate & Barrel Canada.
Tiny pieces of sea-smoothed wood have their own tactile beauty. Crate & Barrel also carries driftwood garlands, made from lozenge-shaped bits collected in the Philippines. Elongated pieces are gathered like flower petals to form circular frames for mirrors or attached to birdhouses for a rustic, weathered look.
At West Elm, small chunks of driftwood are knotted onto cords and hung like beachy streamers from walls.
Le Corre can remember when homemade driftwood lamps were the rage in the sixties - "made by our neighbours, friend or parents in their workshop or garage" - symbolizing the decade's DIY vibe. Today, jet-setting hipsters are rediscovering the user-friendly material, with design blogs such as Apartment Therapy offering instructions for everything from wind chimes to coat racks.
One posting describes being on a remote Ecuadoran beach "literally covered with driftwood. Immediately my DIYer wheels started turning at the thought of all the possibilities should I be so lucky as to get a few pieces through customs intact." But while such descriptions suggest that driftwood is there for the taking, other posts point out that it's a resource to be respected. Not only can driftwood help protect beaches from erosion, "what seems like craft fodder is actually habitat to unseen critters," one blogger notes.
The lesson? When you head out beachcombing this summer, check the rules first.