Bringing Nature Into Your Home With Art, Antiques, and Design – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, June 2012
By Jane Prentiss
What better time to write about nature than in the early summer? All through the silent winter and muddy spring we await opening our windows to hear the birds singing and watch the trees leaf out and bloom in vibrant colors.
What if we didn’t have to go outside to feel closer to nature?
We can bring the energy and beauty that arrives with spring into our homes with antiques and fine art. The materials, forms, and colors we choose to decorate our homes can create a unified design reminiscent of our natural world.
Each of us expresses nature-inspired design in our own way; some only place one natural element in a room, while others like to surround themselves with collections, perhaps featuring a favorite flora or fauna. The presence of nature in design ranges from the obvious (a landscape painting) to the subtle (a chest of drawers that curves gently like the bend in a river).
I hope the following examples and thoughts on decorating with a natural theme will help inspire your next home design project or give you ideas to build your collection of 20th century furniture and decorative objects.
In the Northeast, trees are everywhere and the seemingly endless variety offers many design options when it comes to wooden furniture and decorations. Grains vary according to tree species, finishes may be light or dark according to your tastes, and the form of a wooden piece can range from organic and informal to structured and formal.
Master furniture maker George Nakashima created his pieces with an organic yet refined appeal. Mr. Nakashima’s clients would go to his studio and together they would hand pick a slab of wood. Rather than shaping the wood based on a pre-determined furniture design, Nakashima sketched a piece of furniture based on the piece of wood, often using the asymmetrical form of the wood along with its natural edge as part of the design. Exposed joinery created a balanced and elegant design. Above, this George Nakashima table is an elegant example.
The sideboard pictured on the cover provides an example of a more structured contrast to Nakashima’s organic shapes. Designed by Jon Schackmuth, the piece is comprised of two contrasting woods and metal assembled in a rectilinear form.
Imagine a warm summer day and a dragonfly has landed on a lily pad. Its delicate iridescent wings shimmer in the sunlight. Now imagine bringing that dragonfly into your home in the colors of an iridescent glass vase.
Three very famous glassmakers sought to capture that iridescence in glass: Loetz of Austria, as well as Tiffany and Steuben of New York. By applying metallic oxides to a hot glass surface, these designers created blues, purples, and golds that often reflect a different shade as light hits the surface at a different angle.
The piece of decorated Loetz pictured second from the left on the cover is an excellent example of this iridescent glass. It is not quite as magnificent as a real dragonfly’s wings, but comes close in a valiant attempt to capture and express the natural world.
The Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts periods of the late 19th century into the early 20th century both paid homage to nature. Naturalists were identifying insects, birds, butterflies and flora. The love affair with the natural world was reflected in the objects made by artisans of the period.
The British captured this love affair in cameo glass. The master craftsman of Thomas Webb & Sons cut through multiple layers of colored glass to create compositions of flowers and leaves often accented by a butterfly or a winged insect. The realistic designs of the best cameo glass were expertly crafted by hand.
I have seen impressive collections of English cameo that grace formal homes and museums. But these pieces can be just as sublime on their own; a cameo glass floral vase placed just the right way in a room stands out as a statement piece and object for conversation. The colors and design bring a breath of fresh air into your home.
Nature-inspired design does not have to depict nature. The Art Deco period in France offers a more stylized, less realistic interpretation of nature. French cameo glass from this time period does not depict a tree, bird, or plant exactly, but rather follows a more open and loose design with emphasis on color, form, and line. Examples of French cameo glass can be seen on the cover. Note the stylized pussy willow vase.
Ambient light brightens a home and opens up the space, creating a feeling of warmth and energy. Lighting choices with natural designs abound, such as this European sculptural bronze table lamp. The form of a bird nestles within plant life, topped with a domed iridescent shade. This whimsical and functional object could not be found on the shelves of your local department store.
If you want less sculptural lighting, reverse painted lamps with floral landscapes and birds could be one solution, and there are many great examples from American makers in the early 20th century such as Tiffany, Handel, and Pairpoint. This metal overlay lamp in a grapevine pattern is an American lighting example. The natural grapevine motif together with the green color of the glass create a soft lighting effect.
Clay comes directly from the earth — it’s hard to get closer to nature than that. I personally love wood-fired pottery. To me it’s the perfect blend of the earth, fire, and the soul of the potter.
Arts and Crafts period pottery-makers such as Grueby, Boston, Massachusetts circa 1904, made world class pieces. The predominantly green, thick glazes make a strong statement with broad, modeled leaves and shaped buds. Everyone loves these green pots, and if you are lucky enough to bring one into your home, it will be cherished.
Green was a very dominant glaze color for the period and each potter had his own recipe for their green glaze. Merrimac pottery made a glaze that looks like watermelon rind. The Marblehead pottery glaze appears lightly stippled with more yellow and gray, making it a very soft matte glaze. Natural motifs were the norm in decorated Arts and Crafts pottery, but the glaze colors alone bring the earth into your home through summery green colors.
The Studio Pottery Movement is just as vibrant today as it was over 100 years ago.
I encourage you to investigate antique to early 20th century pieces as well as those made by contemporary potters. Master potters are creating amazing work in the United States, Japan, and Scandinavia right now.
Every time I think of metal my science background kicks in, and I visualize the periodic table of elements. I realize metal seems pretty far from nature to most people, and most people wouldn’t hang the periodic table on their wall, either. But you can bring some of the Earth’s most basic elements into your home in the form of a wonderful hand-hammered hollowware bowl with applied mixed metal decoration. The example shown here was made by Gorham in the late 19th century, and features fruit, leaves and branches. Or, a pair of sterling silver candleholders with seedpod and tendril design can bring a sense of a growing garden to your dining room table or any room.
Finishes on any material can remind you of nature. A sponge-like surface, the texture of stone, and the smoothness of a pebble are all possible design elements for a more natural home. The subtleties of finish excite not only our visual minds but also our tactile senses.
In the business of art, antiques, and design, how something feels in our hands is almost as important as how it looks. When you bring natural fiber curtains, upholstery, and wallpaper into your home, it only accents the other nature-inspired objects you’ve chosen.
Of the objects we’re showing with this article, which have tactile meaning to you? Do you love the feel of the raised leaves on a pottery vase, or the natural grain of the wood on a piece of Nakashima furniture?
Bringing it all Together
Sit down and think about what you love most in nature and how you bring it into your home. Perhaps you prefer a literal interpretation, and look for objects and paintings depicting birds, animals, and landscapes. Or maybe you simply want to echo the colors of nature — the blues of the sky and sea, the greens of the forest, the sand tones of the desert and beaches, and the rich colors of turned earth in the spring. Even geometry and form can mimic nature in a subtle way. Look at the curved lines in the Shiro Kuramata chest of drawers pictured at the beginning of this article – to me, the form suggests motion, almost like a curving river.
Illustrations, colors, and forms all reflect the natural world in different ways, and perhaps the most fun part of designing a room is figuring out how each object plays off the next.
Stop by our gallery, ask questions, and turn your ideal home make-over into a reality with nature-inspired design.
If you’re interested in any of the objects pictured on these pages, I hope you will join me on Saturday, June 23, 2012 at the 20th Century Design auction in Boston at 10 a.m. Auction previews are open to the public on Thursday, June 21 from 12 p.m. to 5p.m. and on Friday, June 22 from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.skinnerinc.com.