Traditionalists have lamented the downfall of ‘brown’ furniture in popular taste for decades. But like all great things, antique dark wood is making a comeback – and for good reason.
What exactly is brown furniture?
Even the name is unfair, and frankly lazy. Brown furniture implies plainness and drudgery, when in fact it encompasses a brilliant spectrum of pattern and colour. Usually, brown furniture refers to solid dark woods like walnut, mahogany, rosewood and teak. It can also apply to any wooden furniture that has been stained dark at some point in its life.
‘Brown’ is a weak adjective though. These quality woods often feature a whole rainbow of browns, but also red, yellow, and black hues. A beautifully figured burr walnut table looks totally different to a mellowed oak refectory table, for example. 'Brown’ sells both short.
The wood itself aside, we commonly associate brown furniture with a certain style too. The heavy-duty furniture that adorned your grandmother's home, polished twice daily and kept out of reach of grubby hands, might spring to mind.
But centuries of cabinet-making produced reams of dark wood furniture in different forms. From slender and elegant Edwardian cabinets to bold and expressive Regency tables, brown furniture critics unfairly lump a vast range of styles into one bracket.
Somewhere around the 70s, we started to turn on this furniture. The forward-thinking Mid Century Modern approach quickly made traditional antique furniture look tired and dated. Luckily, trends are always cyclical, and the brown furniture renaissance is finally here.
Why your interiors need dark wood
The main reason why you shouldn’t dismiss brown furniture is its quality. Genuine period furniture from the Victorian, Regency and Georgian eras reflects expert cabinet-making. Manufacturers like Holland & Sons and Gillows of Lancaster set a high standard for craftsmanship in their fields.
Even simple country antique furniture demonstrates impressive skill. The charming bobbin-turning on a side table or chair stiles from the pre-industrial era reflect hours of handiwork at the wooden lathe. Such features are remarkably popular in contemporary furniture right now, so sourcing an original - probably for cheaper - is a no-brainer.
The sturdy construction speaks for itself; antique wooden furniture has served its purpose for over 100 years. If you need extra bedroom storage, an English 18th Century commode, made from solid wood with spacious drawers and working handles, is going to do the job just fine. Dining tables that have endured perhaps thousands of different family dinners in their lifetime aren’t about to let you down now.
But the best word to describe what brown furniture bestows on an interior is gravitas. A tall Georgian chest on chest, with gleaming colour and graining and decorative brass handles, demands respect. It commands attention and authority in a room, seeming to draw all the other elements towards it. This is the power of traditional antique furniture. One or two imposing brown wood pieces will mature any interior, even the shiniest new build property.
Brown furniture myths
This sort of furniture can alienate people, feeling too stern or formal for their tastes. However, just because this furniture was designed for Georgian or Regency townhouses doesn't mean it won't look right anywhere else. Be imaginative with your styling and you can make antiques relevant for a 21st Century setting.
There is plenty of inspiration out there, as we increasingly see brown furniture in a diverse range of interiors. Majestic antiques are finding homes in contemporary flats, apartments and loft conversions. It all comes back to contrast, the greatest interior trick in the book.
We are not defined by one style. An antique mahogany dining table looks fantastic surrounded by abstract contemporary art, for instance. If you are limited on space, a well-chosen piece of antique dark wood furniture, like a walnut bookcase, instantly creates a mature space.
If your style is more modern, incorporate antique wood furniture sparingly and don’t fear juxtaposition. A tall mahogany cabinet in the same room as a glass and chrome coffee table adds depth and interest. Taking risks is essential for creating that friction that makes an interior successful. Equally, the Mid Century take on brown wood was all sleek lined and sculptural. A teak sideboard from this era will bring the same qualities as antique examples, just with a more contemporary feel.
The colour question
For many, colour is a major consideration when it comes to choosing furniture. Those who aren’t a fan of colour in general tend to gravitate towards whitewashed interiors. Others will match their furniture colours to other interior elements like paint. Lots of us jump to paint a piece of brown furniture to make it fit into a wider scheme.
However, it is important to remember that brown IS a colour – it is not a blank canvas. Natural timber, beautifully aged and patinated, is one of the loveliest colours you can have in an interior. It also works well with a remarkable range of colours, patterns, and textures.
With light paint and minimalist furnishings, a mahogany commode in the living room will ground the scheme and add richness. Equally, brown furniture will look brilliant within a moody scheme paired with rich dark paint. Look at the dominant hues in the wood and use paint and soft furnishings to draw out those colours.
Breathe new life
Dark wood furniture was designed to be well used and well-loved, and this should still be our approach today. Keeping it in check just requires a little TLC, as our in-house restorer Dave explains.