How To Master a Modern Twist on a Classic Design Detail

published Jul 12, 2017
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(Image credit: Cathy Pyle)

Traditional types of architectural woodwork — I’m looking at you, wainscoting — are cropping up more and more in homes these days. Woodwork like this is gaining in popularity due to two main phenomena: folks currently purchasing homes that have original woodwork are interested in restoring the historical craftsmanship, and those who live in homes that weren’t built with charming, handcrafted wooden details are opting to install it to add architectural character.

What’s interesting is the modern twist we’re seeing with vintage woodwork: standard forms and attention to detail still abound, but homeowners and renters alike are mixing in contemporary colors and other more modern design elements. The result is a look that spans time and is richly unique.

The proof? The two rooms below don’t just rock some stunning woodwork; gutsy design decisions enhance the architecture. They’re like style hybrids: one part traditional, one part modern. These two rooms — with two very different design approaches — absolutely ace adding a modern twist to traditional woodwork. And they’re both gorgeous with ideas worth stealing.

Wood panel passion:

(Image credit: Viv Yapp)

Traditional woodwork elements like wainscoting have a bit of a stuffy reputation. One might imagine a home you find wainscoting in as the kind of home outfitted with furniture you shouldn’t sit on. But the bedroom in Ned and Sarah’s remodeled London flat isn’t the least bit formal or stodgy; it’s an explosion of color and pattern.

Here’s why this room works:

1. The wainscoting is painted a dark, rich blue. Instantly this says “I’m not your typical traditional white woodwork.”

2. The bold blue woodwork is complemented and contrasted by an energetically patterned wallpaper on the upper half of the walls. Wisely, the pattern features the same color as the woodwork’s paint, connecting the two disparate design details.

3. The woodwork’s dark blue color and it’s linear shape are echoed in other parts of the room, as well. The window features a similar moody color scheme, and a square border around the edge of the curtains mimics the wainscoting’s square shapes.

4. More squares in the art! By extending the strong geometric shape of the wainscoting into other parts of the room, like the window or the hanging wall art, it visually connects the traditional design element with the more modern design elements, creating cohesion.

Color-coated carpentry:

(Image credit: Cathy Pyle)

Ned and Sarah’s room featured a ton of drool-worthy, steal-able design ideas. And though all of those elements mixed together in one room is a maximalist wonderland, you don’t have to throw so many ideas in the mix to add a modern twist to traditional woodwork. Just take Andrew’s home as an example, also in London. While the woodwork in his lounge isn’t as widely dispersed, it’s completely transformed from typical, traditional wood fireplace and molding to an incredibly minimal, modern composition. Coating the entire accent wall — molding, fireplace and all — creates one solitary wall of color, coincidentally here also a deep rich blue.

Here’s why this room works:

1. The normal expectation for woodwork and molding is to be white or neutral, while the surrounding wall is an accent color. Painting everything works against expectations, delivering a powerful visual surprise.

2. It does a lot with a little. Really we’re only talking about a coat of paint — and yet because everything on the one wall is painted, it just feels like so much more.

3. By making the woodwork blend in, it actually makes it stand out. Again, usually there’s a contrast between wall and woodwork. With no contrast between architectural elements, it extends the visual reach of the fireplace far beyond its physical borders.