Wood is good

Faux bois is something of a lost art. It’s also everywhere. French for“false wood,” faux bois encompasses anything that reproduces theappearance or texture of wood. Though only a handful of artists stillproduce the intricate, cement-covered steel pieces prized by seriouscollectors, the technique also is being applied to every home decorproduct imaginable: Pillows. Plates. Candles. Coasters. Scones. Sheets.

Faux bois is something of a lost art. It’s also everywhere. French for “false wood,” faux bois encompasses anything that reproduces the appearance or texture of wood. Though only a handful of artists still produce the intricate, cement-covered steel pieces prized by serious collectors, the technique also is being applied to every home decor product imaginable: Pillows. Plates. Candles. Coasters. Scones. Sheets.

You name it, someone has slapped a woodgrain pattern on it. More often than not, that someone is Martha Stewart.

“We’ve put faux bois patterns on cookies, cakes and cupcakes. We do it on towels, bath accessories and rugs,” says Kevin Sharkey, home decorating editorial director at Martha Stewart Living.

“It appears in the magazine in some incarnation in almost every issue. Christmas ornaments. Easter baskets. Valentines. There is no place we think is inappropriate for faux bois.”

Donald Tucker, a sculptor and artist in Houston, says the appeal of faux bois lies in the inherent beauty of wood’s texture.

His commissioned pieces — faux bois benches, tables and garden sculptures — can take months to complete.

“I always loved trees and tree forms and wood,” he says.

“I was drawn into the whole woodiness of it — the idea that you can sculpt some concrete into forms that replicate wood and that won’t decay and won’t get attacked by termites.”

With the growing environmental movement, Tucker sees a connection between the popularity of faux bois and the rejection of pollution and mass production. That doesn’t mean faux bois items aren’t being mass produced, however. CB2, Crate and Barrel’s more modern offshoot, sells tote bags made of woodgrain-printed fabric, plastic place-mats with a woodgrain design, and white resin soap dishes and ring holders resembling twigs.

Pottery Barn offers a chandelier made of intertwining iron branches with crystal leaves. Macy’s sells Martha Stewart’s line of faux bois towels, bedding, kitchen and bath accessories.

Grace Bonney, founder and editor of DesignSponge, a website dedicated to home and product design, started noticing faux bois on pillows and other accessories in 2004, as tastes turned from bold colours to patterns.
More recently, she’s seen faux bois paired with orange and other 1970s colors in a kitschy way.

“I think the pattern movement was very much joined by a trend or interest in natural materials, which manifested itself in imagery of botanicals, trees themselves, or woodgrain,” she says.

Jonathan Lo, who co-founded itsknotwood.blogspot.com, a blog dedicated to all things faux bois, admits faux bois is one of those “love-it-or-hate-it” designs.

But he appreciates it as another way to bring nature into his life.

“Artists have always been inspired by nature, whether it be the pattern, or more literally. There’s a certain inherent warmth and visual comfort when you see something that is faux bois, even if it’s made of plastic or metal or even concrete. The same can be said of something with a woodgrain pattern,” he says.

Lo, an art director from Irvine, Calif., says faux bois also was big in the 1940s and ‘70s, but even in the in-between decades remained prevalent.
“Will trees ever go out of style?” he says.

For those looking to incorporate faux bois in their home decor, Lo recommends moderation.

“Think of it as an accent or way to add some texture,” he says. “Try a faux bois candle holder on your dinner table or a dresser. Maybe try a bag or wallet with a woodgrain pattern. Try mixing it into your decor, a lamp that has a faux bois base, add a woodgrain throw pillow, or a mirror with a faux bois frame.”

For crafty types, there are woodgraining painting tools that, when rolled across a surface, create streaks that resemble wood, complete with knots.
Stewart’s website features dozens of DIY projects based on that painting technique, ranging from pet placemats and serving trays to wrapping paper and entire floors. Or get creative with a digital camera: Snap some close-ups of tree bark, print them on translucent vellum and wrap them around glass canisters to create candle holders.

An even easier approach is applying woodgrain contact paper to dress up flat surfaces, says Lo. “One of our favourite things is to use it in places you wouldn’t expect, like hi-tech items. Many people are contact papering their laptops or cellphones with woodgrain.”

Bonney also recommends paper — giftwrap, wallpaper or stationery — as a starting point. “If you like a pattern but are scared of using it, you can always line your desk drawers with it or the inside of cabinets,” she says.

And for those so enamoured with faux bois that they want to learn from a master, Tucker is offering what he believes is the first ever classes in ferrocement faux bois, the traditional method he uses to create his sculptures.

The workshops will be held in August in Colorado and are sponsored by the Ferrocement Educational Network.

“Anyone interested in learning a very esoteric craft is welcome to join me,” he says.

“I’m anxious for another generation of artists to continue this craft.”

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