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Matching a Historic Feel with Modern Materials

How authentic does something really need to be? When you remodel a historic home, or just love a lived-in look, it can be difficult to determine when (and how) to make a new object or material look original. Here, we’ve laid out a few rules of thumb to follow if you’re ever in this predicament yourself.

August 6, 2020

For so many projects, there’s a desire to connect to the past to provide a feeling of authenticity to the space. History and older objects help tie our present to the past and create a sense of comfort that many people love. Sometimes you don’t have old things you can work with and, instead, have a bunch of new things that you may think you want to look old. You look at them and wonder how to make this brand-new wood board look like it has been here for one hundred years.

Have you ever looked at a new material and wondered, “Should I beat this with chains?”

This actual question has come up more times than I really want to believe over the years. And, frankly, there are times when distressing an object to make it look older makes sense. There really aren’t exact rules that you should follow, but here are some guidelines our team uses to help determine how “authentic” something might need to be.

Don’t Try to Recreate Another Material

Let’s start with the one thing that comes closest to a rule. Unless you’re building a set for a theatrical performance, don’t paint a surface to look like another material. Don’t paint fake brick on your basement walls, and, really, we all can tell that concrete floor is just painted to look like tile. Don’t do it.

Do Find Appropriate Ways to Match Old Materials

What about when you’re matching a new material to an old one? We have a project that has timber posts on the outside of the home that have some serious patina and texture to them. We salvaged and reused what we could (which is always a good idea!) but needed more material and could only find new wood. In this case, we, indeed, literally beat them wood with chains to make it look like the old, and it fits in seamlessly.

Sometimes a Facsimile is the Best Option

What if you can’t practically recreate the actual material used but want the same look? Master craftsmen of the past used all sorts of materials we don’t necessarily use now. I don’t believe absolute historical accuracy is required to achieve a look. You aren’t going to put horsehair in plaster now, are you? For the Colonial Restoration on the Hill, we had to recreate the original plaster ceiling that was destroyed by water from a fire that gutted the third floor. We also had large terracotta exterior panels that had to be replaced. We used latex molds of the original plaster pieces to make replicas to complete the ceiling and, for the terracotta pieces, we created new panels out of a fiberglass epoxy compound that would stand up to weather. They all look the same as the original but aren’t the same material, and that is okay.

Consider the Story of the Space

A question that has more gray areas than I want to admit is what to do about materials that are “real” but used in applications instead of their complete form. For example, what about brick tiles that are just very thin brick but then applied to surfaces where you wouldn’t expect them? While the purist architect in me wants to be adamant that we should celebrate the authenticity of the actual base material, there really are cases when it just works. (That was such an “architecty-speak” phrase. I’m kinda proud of myself!) In retail and restaurant design, for instance, a big design goal is to help create a story and a sense of place. Careful use of applied materials in unexpected locations can be acceptable if you’re very careful with managing material transitions and thinking it through.

The Ultimate No-No

If you walk away from reading this only remembering one thing, make it this: do not dip a sponge into paint.

Understanding that authenticity isn’t a clear black and white concept is key to approaching it when you think about your design. Set your own rules, use them to define your process, and you’ll be a long way towards creating an authentic design.

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