Stone and wood, glass and steel are now so popular for walls, floors and work tops that it pays to know what’s hot and what’s not. We guide you through the maze of choosing, using and caring for stylish surfaces.
You only have to leaf through the pages of a design book or magazine, or peek through the windows of the latest bar, club or restaurant, to see that interior styles are becoming ever more adventurous. Just look at the materials that are being used for even the simplest of designs. Stainless steel, glass, stone and wood, in all their varieties, have become staples of the classic modern interior.
Why We Love Them
There are a few obvious reasons for the shift towards using quality surface materials. For one thing, cheap travel means the world is getting smaller all the time. It’s now as easy to explore the cultures and decorative influences of Africa, Indonesia and Australasia as it is to hop on a charter flight to Spain or France. Not surprisingly, ideas and materials are being brought back and used in new ways. This helps shape our own cultural attitudes to design.
There’s also the prevailing modern obsession with design. In particular, this has manifested itself in a greater appreciation of worldwide architecture from architects such as the Japanese Tadao Ando and UK-born John Pawson, whose minimalist interiors use concrete, stone and wood to spectacular effect. Their lead has been followed in the home market.
Added to this, many of us have discovered that hard surfaces are not only good-looking and easy to live with, but ultra practical in today’s homes.
Not long ago, wood – the hot favourite of the organic materials – was mainly being utilised for floors and traditional bespoke furniture. But increasingly, wood is finding its way into more unusual places.
In the bathroom, for example, we’re overcoming the common misconception that wood may react badly, such as warping and rotting, when enclosed in a damp space. Hardwoods such as iroko and teak contain natural oils, making them waterproof and resilient, and are increasingly popular in today’s bathrooms. You may find them used for, and fashioned into, beautiful basins, baths and shower trays. Such woods are also ideal for worktops on a vanity unit.
Less oily woods, such as oak, beech, cherry, maple, mahogany and birch, can be sealed, bonded and impregnated to make them durable enough for wet use.
In kitchens, timber worktops lend a rich warmth and organic feel to white or coloured units. Specialists advise a repeated care process during the early weeks of installation, which involves applying a mixture of Danish oil and white spirit with a cloth or brush, and sanding the rough areas when dry. Be careful too with strongly coloured substances such as curry powders. Avoid leaving spills on your surfaces, and use trivets for hot pots and pans.
A strong trend has emerged in living rooms and bathrooms to use wood for a feature wall, updating the look of traditional gentlemen’s club wood panelling. Beautiful timbers may also be used for floor-to-ceiling built-in cupboards. Hidden in the panelling, or between wardrobe doors, you can seamlessly incorporate a "concealed" door that leads into an adjoining room. There has been huge popularity for the dark-toned wenge, but now American black walnut is the timber of the moment. With its attractive grain and warm tones, walnut is another stylish choice.
The Appeal of Stone
Stone comes in many forms, for many uses, and may include marble, granite, limestone, sandstone and slate. Stone surfaces can be expensive, but with proper care they are practical and hard-wearing.
Granite has long been a favourite for kitchen worktops thanks to its durability and resistance to heat, staining and bacteria. Lavastone is a slightly more unusual choice, and is made from natural lava, reinforced with coloured enamel and kiln-fired. It is surprisingly sturdy.
Limestone is also a current favourite. It is especially useful in the bathroom, where you may wish to accompany limestone-clad walls and floors with a trough basin and bath to match. But before you opt for limestone, which is a porous substance, bone up on its characteristics, and don’t assume that you can use any limestone, anywhere. There are myriad types and colours, so first check with your supplier that the stone you want is suitable for its intended purpose.
Porcelain tiles provide a good alternative to limestone, and boast almost identical looks, with better durability to withstand the weathering of time. Another option to consider is reconstituted limestone, which is composed of around 98% limestone and 2% resin, which is easier to maintain and fit than real limestone.
As a good rule of thumb, any stone that is good enough for commercial flooring will usually be acceptable for kitchen tops, bath surrounds, vanity unit worktops and shower areas. However, it must be prepared and laid properly, with the correct protection applied, so be prepared to invest in installation by the experts.
It’s no wonder that composite materials are finding popularity for worktops, splash backs, and even baths and basins. They combine the aesthetics of natural stone with strength, durability and ease of installation. The only disadvantage is that they tend to be expensive.
Composite slabs are man-made, so surfaces don’t have imperfections, a trait often associated with natural stone. Such surfaces come in smooth unblemished colour finishes, or with tiny glass and mirror shards within, which provide a sparkly look. Composites can also be cut, machined and installed to specific requirements, with no chance of chips or defects.
The higher the percentage of quartz inherent in the material, the stronger it is. It’s also easy to restore composites should they become damaged, but their winning feature is that they retain a beautiful, smooth polished look for years.
Look out for kitchens with beautifully chunky composite surfaces that run right over the edge to form the frame of an island or run of units. Edges can also be curved or tapered. Composite surfaces may be moulded into a sink, or grooved to create a draining board. Nothing quite beats the look of a single, smooth worktop that runs seamlessly into a splash back and/or sink.
There are no hard and fast rules about mixing and matching, but the best results often come from being open to new ideas and thinking beyond the received "do’s and don’ts" of design. You may choose quite a radical look, such as panelling the walls of a small cloakroom space in a rugged timber finish, highlighted with clean white sanitary ware. A subtler finish might be achieved by mixing up kitchen worktops, contrasting some warming walnut, say, next to cool shiny stainless steel.
With their pale colours and subtle good looks, polished plaster and concrete are increasingly recognised for their decorative value. A feature wall in either material looks fantastic in a bathroom or wet-room, especially when teamed with an organic wood bath and basins.
Concrete is highly practical for both floors and worktops, but the look will vary according to the sealant used. Water-sealed versions are rougher in look, whereas varnish results in a shiny finish. For worktops, some concrete types even come with interesting coloured chips, to give a natural textured, almost stone-like, finish. Look out for inlays of metal, glass, stone, and even fossils and seashells.
Other materials such as shiny stainless steel or safety-glass worktops or splash backs, in numerous colours, may be brought into the mix. Both will lighten the looks of dark wood, or add sparkle to a prevailing natural stone finish.
Hard surfaces have numerous rewards, including longevity, architectural high-quality looks and practicality. Typically, this means that most of the materials are expensive to buy. Don’t forget that you can use a quality surface sparingly, choosing a limestone worktop, say, rather than an entire limestone-clad bathroom. To avoid costly mistakes it’s worth investing as much as you can in your choice of material, and employing skilled specialists to install it. The results will be well worth the effort.
Wood does require some care for it to age gracefully. Use silicone-based furniture polishes instead of chemical-based cleaners, and wipe your surfaces dry to avoid watermarks. For stone, regular cleaning with a PH neutral soap is favoured over acidic cleaners such as bleach, which will corrode the stone. In the kitchen, use separate chopping blocks so that coloured and acidic foods don’t come into contact with the stone. Stainless steel may be cleaned using a soft cloth and baby oil. Alternatively, there are specific stainless steel sprays that leave a smear-free finish.
CHOOSING HARD FLOORS
Hard floors suit the clean lines of today’s interiors, are easy to clean and robust. Here’s our guide to the best choices:
STONE. Marble, limestone and slate are all good options for hard flooring, and provide a beautiful neutral base for almost any design. If you live in a period property, check first (with your builder or the flooring installer) if it is necessary to have your floor joists reinforced, to support the weight of the stone. PORCELAIN AND CERAMIC TILES. These tiles are non-porous and waterproof, so are ideal for floors in wet areas. They are also easy to clean. Choose slightly textured tiles for a safe, non-slip surface. If you want colour, try mosaics, which come in a huge range of shades and which are also a great way of adding texture to your floor. Because the tiles are tiny, they also work well for curved, stepped and unusual-shaped floors. If you have the budget, why not commission a mosaic artist to create a bespoke design? WOOD is unbeatable for a timeless look, and works well in both modern and period properties. It is also a natural insulator. The many options range from solid wood floorboards laid in a traditional tongue and groove style, to engineered boards, which are made from veneered finished layers of different timber, then "clicked" together for easy installation. Pick light coloured timbers such as beech for a Scandinavian feel, dark tones like American walnut for a sophisticated dark finish. RECLAIMED WOOD. In the rest of the home, for the interesting, vintage look, try reclaimed wood floorboards, or parquet, which will already have an established, worn patina. BAMBOO. Bamboo makes an increasingly popular alternative. It is humidity-friendly, so perfect for bathrooms and even eco-friendly.
CONTROLLING NOISE ON WOOD FLOORS
The main worry about wooden floors is the noise factor. If noise is an issue, consider installing a second "floating" floor above the original boards to help muffle sound. A fire-safe acoustic mineral wool or, even better, a high performance acoustic quilt, is integrated between the floor joists. The boards are then screwed back into place, and a second floor fixed on top, with a resilient cushioning layer in between. Remember that a floating floor will increase the floor height by around 30mm, so doors may need to be adjusted.