We love Scheele’s green as a home interior colour, and we use it in many of our projects to reflect the taste of previous generations. But have you ever wondered why green is meant to be unlucky?
What is Scheele’s green?
As everyone knows, green is not a primary colour and was not available as a colour for home interior prior to the 1700s. It was during this period when copper was heavily mined, that copper arsenite (a bi-product of the mining process) was discovered.
The vibrant yellow-green pigment derivative for green was concocted by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775 by combining sodium carbonate, arsenious oxide and copper sulphate. It was cheap to produce and really caught on, becoming all the rage in the Victorian interior. It became known as Scheele’s green, and was immensely popular as a colour for home interior. Whole houses turned green – dyes, drapes, paints, wallpaper, hosiery hats and toys were all coloured with copper arsenite as the new trendy colour washed the land.
Why was Scheele’s green toxic?
Here’s the unlucky part. People’s home interiors were literally killing them as they were inhaling arsenic from the green pigment. It is rumoured that Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning whilst exiled on St Helena – his rooms were papered and painted with the pigment. In fact a sample of hair from Napoleon’s head, tested in 2008, showed he had 100 times more arsenic in his bloodstream than we do today.
William Morris and Scheele’s green
Scheele’s green was pushed heavily by the Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, who had a vested interest as he had shares in the copper mines which helped produce the Scheele’s green pigments. Even he had to cease promoting it after the rising numbers of dying and ill workers and stories of children tragically dying young damaged its popularity beyond repair.
The colour today
Luckily we can now enjoy green as a home interior colour without the health risk. Farrow and Ball offer it as a product and it can be mixed as a Hex colour #478800 or RGB references 71, 136, 0. We used it in the pantry in our South Coast project together with the stunning hand-painted wallpaper is by Allyson McDermott that replicates William Morris’ pomegranate wallpaper.
If you’d like to discuss our approach to design and our passion for how brilliantly designed furniture can improve your experience of living in a period house, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01934 745270
In order to design kitchens of the future, it helps to understand kitchen design of the past. By doing so, we believe we can help clients with large country houses understand how their houses were initially intended to be used, and in doing so, how we can improve how they are used in the future. The Artichoke team pays particularly close attention to how country houses were originally intended to operate, and how changing socio-economic environments have affected this use over time. There have been huge cultural changes over the last 150 years.
It was not until the mid 19th century that kitchen design became of interest to house owners. Prior to that, the owners of large country houses were simply not interested in their kitchens or how they were designed. The rooms were out of sight, often in the basement or away from the main body of the house. They were therefore out of mind, run by the cook, the servants and the housekeeper, and the closest they got to interior design was choosing the paint colour.
In the 1860s, changes in social attitudes began to alter the social hierarchy of the country. Before this, the Lady of the grander country house would plan her weekly meals with her cook. With the industrial revolution creating more jobs in factories, and an establishing rail network allowing easier movement, a burgeoning middle class began to appear. Servants’ positions became less interesting to the ambitious jobseeker. This turn of events was very well documented in the BBC’s series Downton Abbey.
The growth of the middle classes (who could afford fewer servants and smaller houses), meant an increasing number of women found themselves in the kitchen. Originally they made bread and trained their staff, but more increasingly they found themselves working alongside the kitchen staff they employed. It was inevitable that improvements to cleanliness, comfort and kitchen interior design would soon follow. This was emphasised by influential cookery writers of the age such as Mrs. Beeton who capitalised on the country’s new found love of kitchen design and kitchen living.
The improved kitchen interior was further fuelled by the introduction of mains water, gas and plumbed in sinks and boilers during the 1870s. The Victorian kitchen was now becoming a more pleasant place to spend the day.
Fast forward to present day, and it is estimated that the British spend over an hour and a half a day cooking which for many represents 3 years over the average life. It’s small wonder then that we place so much value on good kitchen design.
For more information on our bespoke kitchen design service please click here. Contact us on 01934 745270 or email email@example.com if you have a design project you would like to discuss.
Those foolish enough to have spent any time on Twitter will have noticed the lack of any reasoned argument on the platform, so we were surpised and delighted to have seen this wonderful thread from The Cultural Tutor, someone who’s mission it is to spread cultural literacy to the Twittersphere. The face behind the The Cultural Tutor is Sheehan Quirke, and his mission is for people to learn about the Greeks and Romans, about Gothic architecture and Baroque music; about culture.
In his Twitter thread, Sheehan talks about the dangers of lazy design. It is not an attack on Minamalism which was a conscious movement in the last 1960’s characterised by a literal and objective approach to extreme simplicity. Instead it is more of an attack on what he calls ‘small m Minamalism’ which he observes seems to have become the social default for every design choice, whether architectural, corporate or anything else.
This slide into the depths of bland is a hugely troubling phenomenon because of what minimalism represents: a lack of detail.
Why does detail matter? Think of it as identity. What gives the phone box on the left its distinctive character? It is the details; the colour, the mouldings around the door, the ornamentation at the top. The phone box on the right has no real detail, no character and it fails to add value to its environment in any meaningful way.
Even railings and benches have been stripped of all detail.
Doorbells too have become victim. You would remember the one on the left. It adds charm and character to its location. The one on the right… you wouldn’t even notice it.
How many large corporations have rebranded towards far more simplified logos? This is a notorious recent example.
The thing with detail (and, therefore, identity) is that we all have different tastes. So, to some extent, it imposes something on a person. Default minimalist designs strips all identity away from things and objects. It presents a neutral, clean-slate which imposes nothing in its quest to appeal to everyone.
So when small ‘m’ Minimalism has become the social default for everything, from benches and bollards to skyscrapers and kitchens…. we have a reduction ad absurdum of cultural aesthetics; somebody might not like a detail (read: character) so there can be no details. The point being that the process of trying to please everyone actually just ends up producing bland design which doesn’t excite and doesn’t add value. It’s safe. And safe is boring.
We are in danger of becoming an IKEA bookcase world, and it’s a topic we touched on in 2017 when we wrote the blog piece on the return to classicism. There is nothing wrong with IKEA bookcases of course, but when everything looks like one, we have a problem.
Please remember we are not talking about conscious minimalism design here. If you like to decorate your room in a minimalist fashion, that isn’t a problem. It’s none of ours or anybody else’s business. The problem we have is this social drift towards absolute simplification.
The worst crime of minimalist design is how it has stripped all colour away from things.
Perhaps minimalist design is so prevalent because we no longer have anything to say. You don’t need us to explain what the Gothic cathedral says, for example. But the skyscraper? It doesn’t say anything, really. It’s just…there.
And suddenly everything, everywhere starts to look the same. Absolute neutrality. No detail. No identity. What does that say about us?
Detail of course costs money, and in the country’s quest for value engineering to provide cost saving for the public purse, the detail and value is stripped out, leaving little left to admire.
The entire purpose of Artichoke is to design rooms which will be admired by future generations, and we simply cannot do that by value engineering things, because that means stripping detail and a slide into simplification.
As a bespoke joinery specialist, we use wood to shape the character and function of rooms into distinctive and beautifully livable spaces. So, if beautifully conceived joinery is our passion, and our mantra is that without it, a room presents as plain as a box, what is our interest in jib doors which are, essentially, invisible?
Our aesthetic favours interiors which are carefully considered with symmetry and a sense of order being paramount. Jib doors are therefore an important tool in our armoury when planning interior spaces. We also enjoy the playfulness of a secret door – helping to add depth and interest and a sense of surprise to a scheme.
What is a jib door?
Jib doors (or secret doors) are flush mounted into the wall or plane of panelling or bookcases, sometimes without hardware, making it as discreet as possible so that it blends into a wider scheme. Such doors are hidden with wallpaper, panelling or painted and they often have matching skirting at the base of the door, disguising its existence. The use of jib doors during the Georgian period was a popular interior design trick employed to help maintain the balance of interior decoration. It’s a trick we find just as useful in our work today.
An invisible door
When setting out beautifully proportioned panelling to fit within the existing proportions of a room, it’s often seen as detrimental to interrupt the flow of the panelling to insert a door and architraves. While apertures present a fantastic opportunity for us as designers of architectural joinery, at times an architraved opening might upset the equilibrium of the interior. Jib doors are discrete and occasionally a good option for a bespoke joinery specialist like us.
In this North London project, we inserted a jib door into a wallpapered wall. The dark line around the door is a hardwood bead which acts as a frame to encapsulate the de Gournay wall paper and stop it fraying.
In grander houses, there are often rooms with a hierarchy of doors set within their walls. Some are deliberately larger than others to denote it being a portal to another important room (such as between a drawing room and a dining room). It’s a form of classical nudge theory, with the grander doors taking on an architectural joinery treatment which denotes their significance. Supporting these larger feature doors are the necessary secondary doors which might lead to an important part of the home but demand a more subtle treatment. This is a moment worth considering a jib door.
Historically, jib doors have been used to hide entrances to servants’ quarters in grand country houses. Called the green baize door, it was not only discrete but the felt prevented the transfer of noise so that people talking behind the door weren’t heard. The masters of the house were therefore shielded from servants’ chatter while the padding afforded some privacy for the owners and their dinner party conversations.
The history of secret doors goes back much further – there were even secret doors found in Egyptian tombs (albeit not jib doors!). During Elizabeth I’s reign, hiding places concealed behind secret doors were quite a feature of the English country house. They were created specially for priests to hide away safely during a time when Catholics were persecuted, hunted down, tortured, and murdered. The design of these Priest holes was often ingenious, and there were often multiple hiding places in one house. Harvington Hall is one such house; the priest hide is 8ft long, 3ft wide and 5 ft high with the entrance barely a foot wide. In the library there is a swinging beam which looks like a timber in the wall but is in fact a beam on a pivot.
The fun of a jib door
So, jib doors can be useful to hide entrances, disguise storage and maintain symmetry but they can also be purely for fun. Our clients love the fact that its secret. There’s nothing better than a surprise feature which is not necessarily noticed at first. This adds depth and texture, elevating a scheme beyond the ordinary. These features, beautifully made, are what we love.
Jib doors must be executed with precision as they must work well as well as look beautiful. Very strong hinges need to be designed for jib doors that contain books in order to ensure longevity. Fake spines of books are a popular way round this but not one that we like – although its playful we don’t find it convincingly secret.
The library at Osterley Park
For future generations
As a bespoke joinery specialist, our work is all about the door. While the clever thing about jib doors is their discretion, they bring so much more than just hiding a storage space or correcting an asymmetrical elevation. What jib doors can bring is a sense of fun, character, and novelty for our clients to enjoy today but also for future generations.
If you’d like to discuss our approach to design and discover first hand our passion for brilliantly designed furniture and how it can improve your experience of living in a period house, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 (0)1934 745270.
Like the architect of grand buildings such as Arley Hall in Cheshire, at Artichoke our purpose is to produce rooms of heritage quality. It is our mission to ensure every room we design and make will form a long term part of our clients’ houses for generations.
There have always been designers and makers with the same mission as ours, and their interiors are still looking as breathtaking today as they were when first installed, all those years ago. Their legacy creates an emotional and aesthetic connection to Britain’s cultural identity. It is our inspiration.
In this new series, we will tell the story of English country house interiors that we admire. Our special thanks go to Christopher John Photography for allowing us to use his photography from Arley Hall, the subject of our first brief biography of a building.
Arley Hall was built by the Warburton family in the mid 1400s. Originally it was a U shaped timber framed structure surrounded by a moat. The three story building you can see in the photo above was added in 1570 and was left largely unaltered, falling into disrepair until the late 18th century, when the house was encased in redbrick and neo-classical stone facades. It was at this time that Arley Hall’s housekeeper was Elizabeth Raffald, who went onto become the writer of one of Britain’s most successful cook book at the time, ‘The Experienced English Housekeeper.’
These late 18th century architectural interventions turned our to be unwise and unsympathetic, and the house continued its decline until 1813 when it was inherited by the then 8 year old Rowland Egerton Warburton. At the age of 21, charged by a decent inheritance, Rowland decided to completely rebuild Arley Hall using modern building methods, but in the Jacobean style as a nod to his ancestral past and the source of his wealth.
The Grand Hall
Rowland chose George Latham, a local architect, to design the house. Latham had trouble achieving planning permission. His first neo-Jacobean submissions were dismissed. Finally, his Elizabethan concepts were approved, but on the proviso that every feature in the house had an exact original Elizabethan replica elsewhere. With this large task at hand, both Egerton-Warberton and Latham embarked on a lengthy study trip to investigate Elizabethan detail before starting the first phase of the work in 1932.
The Library at Arley Hall
The Dining Room
Latham designed the dining room doorways and panelling as well as the neo Elizabethan ceilings which were installed in 1842 by J Hughes of Manchester. The dining room table (unseen) was made for the original dining hall which was demolished in 1968. It sat 24 people.
The Drawing Room
The beautiful drawing room at Arley Hall was is devoted to the memory of Rowland Egerton Warburton, whose portrait hangs over the fireplace.
As these beautiful images show, Arley Hall is a classic example of a money-no-object approach to building design and interior architecture. Rowland Egerton-Warburton was young when he inherited the family money, and he was clearly passionate about recognising his family legacy by way of a grand architectural statement. Of all the periods to choose to replicate, Elizabethan architecture and interior design is the most involved and consequently the most expensive to reproduce, requiring the finest plasterers, carvers, brickmakers and joiners to deliver. It would have been a very costly undertaking but Rowland had the vision necessary for such an undertaking and he has certainly left an impressive legacy.
“Without great patrons, there would be no great architecture” said Sir Edwin Lutyens.
If you’d like to discuss our approach to design and discover first hand our passion for brilliantly designed joinery and how it can improve your experience of living in a period house and form part of your home for generations, please email email@example.com or call +44 (0)1934 745270.
In 2021, Artichoke was invited to take a journey into the world of Belle Epoque interiors with a new project in Switzerland. St Karlshof is an historic estate located on the southern part of the town of Zug in Switzerland. The estate buildings were built in phases and consist of three distinct parts. The St Karl Borromaus Chapel (completed in 1637), the baroque inspired Herrenhaus (completed in 1750) and the French-style inspired Mittelbau (completed in 1769).
Artichoke was approached by the client and the project Interior Designer to help realise their dream of designing the heritage back into St Karlshof. Their goal was to create a Belle Epoque inspired interior for the building.
The Belle Epoque
The Belle Epoque period was considered a golden age in Europe between 1871 and the start of World War I. It was a period of joy, optimism and creativity where the arts, particularly in Paris, flourished. The Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere were in full swing and Paris’ influence spread across continental Europe and England.
We relished the chance to be part of this unique project. It presented an opportunity to apply our extensive knowledge of this magical era. The initial scope of works included the design of three principal kitchens.
A House with a Past
Many historic buildings find themselves used in ways which extend beyond their originally intended use. St Karlshof is no exception. It was a monastery in the 1700s (the Swiss national anthem was written in the estate chapel), a nunnery in the 1800s, a boarding school in the 1900s and a school for young ladies with learning disabilities in the noughties. Before our client bought the estate, the property housed the riverside campus of the International School of Zug and Lucerne. By extraordinary coincidence, our Company Founder and Creative Director, Bruce Hodgson, has a nephew who was once educated in the building.
A Design Brief for the Future, inspired by the Past
Owning a nationally important building comes with certain responsibilities. As part of our client’s tenure, particular areas of St Karlshof will be open to the public on selected days of the year. Our first design task was to consider the basement gastro kitchen where a team of chefs would cater for the public.
The Edwardian Gastro Kitchen
The brief for the gastro or chef’s kitchen, which is located in the basement of the central section of the building, was that it must support larger private or public events. It therefore needed to provide a professional team with all the facilities they need to cook and prepare Michelin quality dinners for 35 guests, or an apero-style dinner for up to 200 people.
Typical of kitchens in the lower ground floors of historic buildings, one of the most complex challenges to overcome is extraction. Preparing food for 200 people creates a lot of steam and smoke, so extraction must be designed to be punchy enough to deal with it.
The room presented itself as such during our initial visits.
Unlike the British, the Swiss have not retained much of their joinery heritage. We therefore agreed to deploy our extensive knowledge of the grand English country house kitchen into the space with a nod to the Belle Epoque.
Initial Layouts for the Gastro Kitchen
With a large and complex room such as this, it pays to make sense of the layout of the space first. Appliance research is critical, especially when the kitchen will be used by both domestic and professional staff and high quality meals will be delivered at volume.
After extensive exploration we chose a DeManincore range oven. This is a professional kitchen in itself – a collection of equipment housed within one single appliance capable of being operated by multiple chefs at the same time. As a consequence, it is demanding on services with very heavy power supply, water, drainage and extraction all concentrated in a 3m x 1.8m block of space.
Our initial space plan for the kitchen was presented as follows, and largely approved.
Sketched Elevated Concepts
Once we have security of a room plan which works with the proposed hardware, we are then able to start building elevations. At this stage, detail is kept relatively loose; the principal purpose of our concepts is to give clients a sense of the direction of travel. This approach gives clients the opportunity to question our thinking so adjustments can made without undoing too much work.
Our concept sketches below indicate the general form we intend to take.
Once everyone is happy with the general form of the room, our next task is to research the period mouldings which will give the furniture its style and form. At Artichoke we draw on a vast database of authentic classical and period mouldings that were used throughout the UK and Europe. A well researched and carefully selected set of mouldings can dramatically shape the character of a space. Their correct use is hugely underrated and misunderstood in the wider interior design world but it is our forte.
Detailed Renders for the Gastro Kitchen
Detailed design renders really help clients see how their rooms will really look. Our detailed design renders for the gastro kitchen are below.
The Family Kitchen
Our design for the family kitchen takes on a much more Belle Epoque flavour. It is a 29 m2 room, with an associated scullery of 6.5 m2, located on the first floor of the central section of the building. It has access to a roof-top terrace located on top of a semi-circular orangery.
It is one of a total of four apartment kitchens serving the day-to-day needs of our client and his wider family. Our original concept design sketches for the room are below.
Detailed Renders for the Family Kitchen
The renders really bring to life our intention to take this space into the Belle Epoque, with rounded corners on the range opening and a fresh and light paint finish for the panelled walls. Most of the appliances have been hidden behind specially designed cabinet doors to disguise their modernity; the large fridge, freezer, wine fridge and small bar are all hidden from view.
The range cooker, also built by DeManincor who designed the large ovens in the gastro kitchen, is sleeved into an alcove with white diagonal tiles with cabochons. A generous fibrous plaster cornice runs around the room.
A Belle Epoque Kitchen
The Belle Epoque feel continues in the client’s mother in law’s kitchen, albeit with different moulding details. The arched headed three panel doors with raised and fielded panels is one of the few remaining joinery features at St Karlshof. Our design for the joinery complements the detail found on this door. The drawer fronts reflect the mouldings and the kitchen doors mirror the raised and fielded panels of the original doors. Unlike in the family kitchen, both doors and drawers close onto the frames rather than within them. This is a very European detail and it allows doors and drawers to swell and shrink in size over the seasons without gaps appearing between the door edge and frame. The upper cabinets hold mirror glass panels to reflect the light.
The St Karlshof Study
On most projects, as the relationship with our client develops, our scope of work extends beyond the original brief. In this case, having worked on the kitchens, our design team was asked to look at the creation of a study on the top floor.
The brief for the study took us down a nautical tack, furthered by our client’s interest in 19th century sea battles. Taking inspiration from Lord Nelson’s private study onboard HMS Victory, our design team proposed a grand classical room made of English Sweet Chestnut. A hand applied, multi layered wax and polish finish was specified to create a beautiful deep lustre and sheen on the timber.
By using a Roman arch/column/arch technique we were able to square the room up and hide the angle of the mansard roof creating a more classical rhythm. This also allowed us to fashion deep reveals at the windows which appear as mini triumphal arches. In Roman times, the triumphal arch was a stone built monumental structure erected to honour an important person, often a Roman general.
The Study in Renders
The detail and columns around the room deploy Roman classical mouldings, with the entasis being geometrically worked out to classical proportions. An entasis is a common feature of classical architecture where a slight curve is added to a column shaft which decreases from the bottom up. This gives the appearance that the columns are swelling and carrying a heavy load (typically the entablature). Without an entasis, straight columns can appear to concave at the centre which can be a disagreeable trick of the eye.
As part of the scheme, we also designed the fibrous plaster ceiling with a rope detail running along the spine of each coffer. The introduction of the ceiling, which is quite modern in comparison to the study joinery, ensures the room keeps some of the freshness of the Belle Epoque found in the rooms downstairs.
Leaded glass windows were introduced to the study as a play on the type of windows found in London taverns and on the backs of naval battleships in the early 1800s.
A marble lined bar can be seen behind doors on the left hand side of the elevation above. We are currently in the process of designing a bespoke marquetry desk with burr walnut veneers and hand tooled leather skiver, under which will be a lift-up computer monitor. A hand woven rug will sit centrally and depict the Battle of Copenhagen.
This Belle Epoque interiors project exemplifies Artichoke’s method. We have listened to the needs of the client whilst being sensitive to the historic building to create a scheme fit for modern life which will be admired for generations. If you’d like to discuss our approach to design and discover first hand our passion for brilliantly designed furniture and how it can improve your experience of living in a period house, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 (0)1934 745270.
When a child under the age of ten is asked to draw a house, it is typically a Georgian house, with a door in the middle and sash windows to the side. Everyone loves Georgian architecture. There is something about its proportions, its materials and its grandeur that makes it appealing to all of us, and the same applies to elegant Georgian kitchen design.
Georgian kitchen design as we think of it today is a little misleading. In the 1700s, most kitchens on the great houses of Britain were often positioned in a wing or subsidiary building. This was to keep cooking and curing smells away from the main house. Original Georgian kitchens were in fact quite devoid of furniture and any sense of intentional interior design. Their focus was more on the appliances such as cooking grates, spits and ovens. There may have been a cook’s table and a dresser to store pots in, but that was as flamboyant as most got.
From back of house to front – How the Georgian Kitchen gained prominence
Owners of grand houses did not like to spend money on their back of house spaces and consequently most original Georgian kitchen designs were kept pared back and understated. As the industrial revolution began to take hold, a burgeoning middle class began to appear and servants left their roles serving the upper and middle classes to take jobs in factories. Servant’s wages began to rise to a point where hiring them became unsustainable for country estates, and as a consequence, the lady of the house became more involved in the kitchen. This marked the turning point in kitchen design. Home owners did not want to spend their day in the dingy spaces that their predecessors’ staff had had to endure, and as a result, back of house kitchens manned by maids were userped by front of house kitchens manned by their owners. And with the Georgian kitchen’s new prominent location within the home came a sharper focus on interiors and kitchen furniture design.
Georgian Kitchen Design for Grander Houses
When kitchens were back of house, their detail was kept to a minimum for a number of reasons. Detail costs money, and detail takes time to clean. The door frames were therefore typically square and the cabinets were usually devoid of mouldings and decoration.
When kitchens were moved to the ground floor of the main house, the rooms were larger, as were the budgets. The scale and proportion of these larger spaces also allowed for greater decoration and moulding to match the spaces they were in. Typical kitchen tasks, previously divided in separate smaller basement rooms such as scullery, pantry, larder and cooking were now amalgamated into a single larger space. The Georgian kitchen had become and multi functional space.
Wainscot Panelling, or Wainscoting, is a style of panelling which developed off the back of early panelling methods.
In its first instance, wainscoting was developed as a practicality. It provided insulation and covered up any damp that infiltrated cold stone walls. Yet, it was soon recognised as a decorative technique, adding detail and warmth to a room. In the 13th century, Henry III imported wood from Norway and used it to line rooms at Windsor Castle. As time went on, decorative panelling, or wainscoting, turned into a fine art.
Linen-fold panelling was a decorated and embellished style that became popular in the 15th century. Boiserie panelling, which is ornate and intricately carved, became favored in French interior design in the late 17th century. This type of panelling lined walls, doors, cupboards and shelves influenced the wainscoting style and e can be found at Hampton Court Palace in Richmond.
During the English Renaissance, wood panelling became simpler in design, marking a semblance to the wainscot style. In grand houses, applied pilasters appeared to provide an architrave which elegantly concealed the join between panels. Applied pilasters then became a common feature of classical Georgian interior architecture, punctuating walls to emphasise window positions and bring structure to a large space.
During the 18th century, a new panelling style came into fruition: Wainscot panelling. Danish Wainscot oak panelling was characterised by only covering the lower section of a wall, leaving a dado above rather than floor to ceiling, or indeed the ceiling as well. Wainscot oak produced large, knot-free boards that were attractive and easy to work with, making it more favorable than oak grown in Britain.
Wainscoting is still a popular panelling style today.
Panelling in Your Home
When decorating your home, it is always important to consider it’s period and history; this should then be used to influence your internal architecture and decoration style. For example, in Victorian houses, it would be acceptable to have Edwardian panelling. However, it would not make stylistic sense to have Victorian panelling or wainscoting in an Edwardian house as the chronology would be backwards. Panelling with sunk framed squares, or rectangles, was popular in the 16th and 17th century and is particularly appropriate for restoring a country manor house. The period of a building influences its proportions both externally and internally, and such considerations are central to our design process at Artichoke.
Nowadays, it is possible to panel or wainscot walls in a variety of beautiful woods from across the world. Panelling can be made to suit both traditional and modern interior decoration. If you are interested in painted panelling, a more contemporary style, then a hard wood such as poplar can be an appropriate choice. For panelling that showcases the wood grain, sapele or soft wood, such as European redwood, can be effective. For traditional paneling styles, mahogany, walnut and oak are classic. Using stains and polishes will age and give character to any wood. In softer rooms, such as bedrooms, fabric panels can be used to add texture and grandeur. In formal rooms, adding marquetry into panels can be striking and ornate.
Wainscoting lends well to darker, smaller rooms, where full walled panelling may be too oppressive. Leaving the top section of a wall to be painted or papered, offers an opportunity for colour and pattern alongside a traditional panel.
If you own a listed property, it may be appropriate to speak to your conservation officer or take advice from Historic England. In cases of preserving and renovating authentic panelling, working with a specialist is recommended.
As experts in historical architecture and period joinery, Artichoke can offer trusted, bespoke panelling and wainscoting design. Working closely with our suppliers, we have access to some of world’s most beautiful timbers and veneers.
Up until the early 20th Century, the typical English country house was principally built from timber, stone and brick; simple when compared to the plethora of material types, fixtures and fittings available to today’s architect.
Of the timber choices available to those building country houses in the 18th and 19th centuries, the most common were European Walnut, Mahogany, Russian Deal, English Oak, English Elm and Chestnut. Sensibly, English country house owners and their builders would make the most of natural resources available locally to their house, with each timber type having a different role to play in the make up of the English country house, with Walnut and Mahogany being favoured for the more decorative elements and Russian Deal, Elm, Oak and Chestnut for the more constructional. Each had their part to play.
Fast forward to today, and most clients renovating a country house are increasingly sensitive to the original materials used to build it. But are the original timber species used still available in the same form, and what are the alternatives if they are not?
European Walnut and Mahogany
Then: Until the early 1700’s Walnut was by far the most popular of the decorative hardwoods for use in English country houses. It had a soft colour and an interesting grain. But access to fine quality walnut ceased after 1709 when the Great Frost, the harshest European winter for 500 years, killed off much of the walnut stock in France. This triggered English cabinet-makers to look elsewhere for alternatives, with mahogany proving the outright winner. In 1721 the British Parliament removed all import duties from timber imported into Britain from the British colonies, instantly stimulating the trade in West Indian timbers including, most importantly, mahogany. With no competition from Walnut, imports of Mahogany into England rose from 525 tons a year in 1740 to more than 30,000 tons in 1788. In a relatively short period of time, Mahogany had become the most popular timber for luxury furniture and architectural joinery in the country houses of England.
Now: Mahogany is no longer imported from the Americas although we do have old stock on supply which is reserved for very specific country house projects and feature architectural joinery doors. The only true mahogany currently imported into the UK these days is African Mahogany which is lighter in colour than Brazilian or Cuban mahogany which tend to be very dark orange. African mahogany also has a slightly wilder grain pattern. Between the two, our timber of choice would always be European Walnut for its softer colouring, its figure and its provenance.
Then: Russian deal is a high quality softwood grown in the Baltic regions of northern Russia, typically from Archangel and Onega. It is slow grown, tall, straight and dense, and with its fine grain is ideal for making hand painted interior architectural joinery. It was considered poor for exterior use however, with Rivington’s Building Construction Guide (published in 1875) declaring it unfit for work exposed to the damp shores of the UK. A more in depth piece on Russian Deal was written by us a few years ago, triggered by the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace where much of the joinery in the wonderful period locations were made of this material.
Now: Russian Deal is tough to get hold of, not because it is scarce but because the timber yards in Russia will only sell it by the boatload and the boards offered are only 1 inch thick. Specialist companies such as Artichoke are of no commercial interest to these yards. Scandinavian Redwood is the next best alternative. It’s almost identical albeit being a slightly smaller tree. Artichoke uses Scandinavian Redwood in listed country house projects where organisations such as Historic England require it or we feel it will benefit the feel of the final room and character of the furniture. The grain certainly looks good when over painted, and we have recently used it when designing and making a kitchen based around the National Trust’s kitchen at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Images from this project can be found here. The reason most furniture makers do not use Scandinavian Redwood is principally because of timber movement which can make it more unpredictable in modern homes with more aggressive heating set ups. Poplar or tulipwood is (in our mind) a more sensible choice if the project is to have a crisp hand painted finish with no grain grinning through the paint. It is resin and almost knot free and dense if you buy it from the right sources.
Then: English oak is rot resistant, making it ideal for exterior joinery and boat building (many Queen Anne and early Georgian English country houses feature repurposed supporting oak beams which once formed part of our naval fleet). Oak’s ability to resist rot, combined with its immense strength and availability, made it the perfect building material for timber framed houses, and many of the originals are still standing. Of course, much of England’s ancient forests are either now protected or gone.
Now: English oak is very much readily available in the UK, although it tends to be farm or estate grown, meaning the trees have not been cared for as a commercial commodity would typically be. This makes the quality of the available material quite unpredictable and inconsistent for interior furniture such as libraries or room panelling. Our climate in Northern Europe also means English oak trees grow slowly with wild grain patterns often being a feature. English oak is also a darker shade of brown than European oak and, combined with wild grain patterns and knots, can make the furniture appear quite rustic without careful selection. At Artichoke we prefer oak from southern France where our oak trees are grown commercially and therefore managed as a crop. Buying oak for a project from the same single stand in the same area of a woodland also gives us the confidence in knowing we will receive a high quality product with a consistent honey colour throughout. Having an excellent relationship with your supply chain is vital if the work is to stand the test of time for hundreds of years.
English Oak also makes an excellent flooring material; it ages beautifully and is hard wearing. Our friends at Weldon Flooring are worth talking to if you are working in an historic or new build English country house in need of a beautiful oak floor.
Then: Like English Oak, English Elm is known for its rot resistant qualities making it suitable for exterior work. As one of the largest deciduous trees in the UK, it was commonly used as a building material for roof frames and supporting beams. While extremely strong with an immense ability to withstand crushing forces, it was not as popular as English oak because it tends to move and split. This is the reason that smaller English country houses, and those with agricultural links, tended to favour English Elm. In the smaller English country house, cost was a factor and you could get more out of the larger trunk.
Now: Dutch Elm disease ravaged the UK’s population of English Elm between 1970 and 1990, and there are now few left, making English Elm pretty exclusive. The stock we now use for English country house work tends to be quite gnarled and rustic in appearance, so like English Oak it needs to be selected carefully. For a large English country house project we would nowadays consider European Elm, which is the same species but grown in Europe. Like oak, this material tends to be more consistent in its growth and straighter grained making it a good choice for doors and architectural joinery.
Then: Chestnut was known as poor man’s oak (and still is to a degree), and it was a common tree found in English parklands and woodlands. The tree can grow tall and strong and as a result it was often used for floorboards being cheaper than oak but similar in grain pattern. It was often used in joinery work and furniture, but less so on structural joinery where oak was around 20% stronger. It was often used in fencing as it is naturally durable. Chestnut went out of circulation and popularity when it became the same price as oak, with makers and builders preferring the stronger and more water resistant oak instead.
Now: These days Chestnut is still widely available and is used regularly in cladding, decking and beams, and it is now cheaper than oak. From Artichoke’s point of view it is not only a wonderful timber to work with but it also takes an authentic period finish beautifully.
So in conclusion, for clients renovating or building an English country house, it is entirely possible to use authentic home grown timber that is appropriate to the period or to the original building materials, although its origin of source may now be different to the original.
If you are focused on using the correct timber and materials for your country house project and are motivated to create furniture which will become an integral part of its architecture for many years to come, we’d love to hear about it!
Fans of the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace will not have escaped the incredible Russian interior design in many of the locations.
While the general media has been gushing about the sumptuous gilded rooms seen in buildings such as the spectacular Catherine Palace, one property went largely unnoticed. I would hesitate to use the word modest to describe Count Rostov’s Dacha (the name for a Russian country retreat), but in comparison to many of the interiors used elsewhere it is indeed modest. The interiors are panelled length ways in rough un-finished timbers and the architectural joinery is made from softwood and un-treated.
What we find particularly alluring about this building is the use of softwood. It is of course the obvious building material for a house surrounded by some of the World’s largest coniferous forest, but in modern Britain softwood is often derided as hardwood’s cheaper and less attractive younger sibling. This prejudice towards softwood is unfair and if you spend as much time in country houses as we do, you begin to understand how important good quality softwood is (and was) to period architecture and buildings. You also begin to understand how beautiful softwood can be when used decoratively.
Softwood was used extensively in the building of country houses, with the premier material being Yellow Deal (Pinus Sylvestris), a species commonly found across northern Britain, Sweden, Norway, North America and Russia. However it is the Russian sourced Deal which good builders and joiners have always favoured. The Deal from northern Russia grows slowly in the particularly cold climate, making it dense, stiffer than oak and perfect for the long supporting beams once required to span the wide rooms of large country houses. In many ways Deal performs like a hardwood and no other tree produces timber so long, straight, stiff and light (with the added advantage of it being disliked by deathwatch beetle!).
These benefits placed Russian Yellow Deal in great demand during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and it was used extensively as both a structural material (beams, roof trusses and so on) as well as architectural painted joinery such as skirtings, architraves and doors. It was also used extensively in fitted joinery for the domestic areas of houses, such as kitchens, sculleries and pantries such as the one below at Tyntesfield.
Today it is challenging to buy Deal from Russia, not because it is scarce but because large Russian timber yards are not commercially interested in selling us the comparitively small volumes of high quality knot free boards we need. Instead we now rely on a source of Yellow Deal from northern Sweden which is of a similar quality and density.
As the Rostov’s Dacha shows us, natural and unfinished softwood can look beautiful in the right setting, but good quality softwood produces a strong grain pattern which can be used to great advantage when painted as seen in the Artichoke sample below. Here our finishing team have mixed up a milk paint and applied it to Swedish Deal for a bespoke kitchen project in Oxfordshire.
As designers of bespoke kitchens and interior architectural joinery for country houses and period buildings, a knowledge of materials and where to procure the best of them is really important. We have a responsibility to get it right for our clients, and in our experience the modern day prejudice directed at softwood stems from a combination of the quality material being offered by poor quality timber merchants and the general population’s diminishing knowledge for craft and timber. The best quality softwoods are still incredibly versatile when you know what to buy and how to use them and they should not be dismissed.