UPDATE on previous post.
Maybe KP is more upscale than I first thought...
September 13, 2001
Designers Say Knotty Is Nice
By FRED BERNSTEIN
THE big debate began -- as debates often do -- with the decision to save money.
When it was time for Martha Pilgreen, a Boston architect, to panel the walls of her new weekend house in Truro, Mass., on Cape Cod, she specified No. 2 pine -- the kind with knots. ''Knotty pine costs half as much as clear,'' she noted. And Ms. Pilgreen, a modernist, planned to have the walls painted white. But after the boards were installed, her husband, K. Michael Hays, told her that he wouldn't mind leaving them unpainted. ''I thought he was joking,'' said Ms. Pilgreen, who associated knotty pine with moosehead-adorned rec rooms of the 1950's.
Soon, Professor Hays, who teaches architectural theory at Harvard and is the adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was bringing home books on the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who occasionally designed with knotty wood -- in an effort to convince Ms. Pilgreen that nature's design could coexist with hers.
''I wasn't having any of it,'' she recalled.
Time was on Professor Hays's side (the house wasn't ready for painting), and so, it turned out, were friends of the couple. Over the summer, hordes of them, including prominent architects, voted on what the couple came to call the knotty-or-nice question. And guess which side won?
''My friends deserted me,'' Ms. Pilgreen lamented.
Knotty pine, the backdrop of so many spin-the-bottle games, is back. Tyler Brûlé, the editorial director of Wallpaper, chose a knotty pine room in Germany as a setting for a layout in the debut issue of his fashion magazine, Spruce. ''Ten years ago, you could only use knotty pine ironically,'' Mr. Brûlé said. ''Now, everyone's thinking Alpine chic.''
In what may signal a pendulum swing away from white-on-white modernism, or a return to homey comfort amid economic uncertainty, people who would have shuddered at knotty pine a couple of years ago are embracing the warm wood. Credit a recent crop of Swiss and Scandinavian designers for making, in Professor Hays's words, ''natural wood modern again.''
Suzanne Slesin, who has written books on the influence of modernism on interior design, now edits HomeStyle, which shows a knotty pine interior in its current issue. ''More and more people are starting to ask themselves, 'What do I give up if I go totally modern?' '' Ms. Slesin said.
The producers of ''The Deep End,'' a moody thriller set on the shores of Lake Tahoe, gave the heroine (played by Tilda Swinton) a home paneled in knotty pine. ''It not only worked with Tilda's coloring, but it was a way of signaling domesticity,'' said David Siegel, one of the directors.
The other director, Scott McGehee, joked, ''It's nice to unconsciously become part of the zeitgeist.''
Knotty pine might be expected on Lake Tahoe. But the room in HomeStyle, decorated by Steven Gambrel, is on Georgica Pond in East Hampton. ''It's got very sophisticated furniture, and the knotty pine brings a sense of comfort and coziness,'' Ms. Slesin said.
It is easy to decorate with knotty pine because ''it gives character to a room and ties the other elements together,'' Mr. Gambrel said. ''It's basically a golden hue, with ruddy highlights. So I picked up on the texture, using nubby linens, and filled the room with warm sepia tones.''
Gene Colandro, a New York interior designer, devised a barn-theme bedroom this summer for a 12-year-old equestrienne on the Upper West Side, with a custom-made knotty pine bed area and ''hayloft,'' knotty pine furniture and even a knotty pine Venetian blind.
After seeing the new issue of HomeStyle, Steve Knollenberg, an interior designer in Detroit, reconsidered plans to repaint the kitchen in his 1940's cabin on Lake Michigan, where knotty pine extends to a scalloped valance over the sink. He had painted the knotty pine in his living and dining rooms white, using an undercoating called Kilz (www.kilz.com), which prevents the resin in the knots from soaking through. But now he may leave the kitchen walls au naturel. ''A couple of years ago, I wouldn't have considered it,'' he said. .
Mr. Brûlé, of Wallpaper, who is based in London, said he grew up in Canada with a bedroom suite of blond knotty pine, adding, ''By the time I was 16, I didn't want to look at any of it.'' But that was 1,000 trends ago. These days, he says, he associates knotty pine with ''security and familiarity.''
Mr. Brûlé has two knotty-pine homes, a lakeside cabin in Sweden and an apartment in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
An architect he consulted took one look at the cabin and said, '' 'We're going to paint all of the walls white and get rid of all this knotty pine,' '' Mr. Brûlé recalled. ''I said, 'Absolutely not.' I think he was under the impression that the Wallpaper editor would want something slinky. But I was seduced by the honey glow of the pine, exactly what you want when you escape the white plaster walls of London.''
In Switzerland, the architect David Marquardt is adding knotty pine to Mr. Brûlé's new apartment. Watching Mr. Marquardt work made him realize that ''the first time around, there was a chunkiness, a clunkiness to knotty pine,'' Mr. Brûlé said.
''This time, it's a lot lighter, and I don't just mean the hue,'' he added. ''It's being treated with more respect.''
Professor Hays agrees, pointing out that in his house in Truro the knotty pine boards are carefully joined to create the flush surfaces characteristic of modern architecture. ''It's really just a flat surface with a pattern, which is very contemporary. I kept arguing that knotty pine is what comes after white.''
His friend Rodolfo Machado, a Boston architect, said: ''It's a kind of modern architecture with polka dots. I like it.''
Professor Hays gives credit for the knotty pine revival to Scandinavian designers and Swiss architects like Peter Zumthor, who has integrated natural wood into stark modern designs. Mr. Brûlé said that the Swiss like pine because ''it grows fast, it's a renewable resource.'' Internationally, he added, ''architecture is having a Swiss moment.''
For some, knotty pine is appealing not because it is chic but because it is cheap. In the 19th century, when fine wood was shipped from the Northeast to Southern ports, knotty pine was sent back north as ballast, said Frank Welles, who runs a wood-finishing company in Garnerville, N.Y.
But one man's ballast is another's balustrade. Mr. Welles charged $30,000 to finish the knotty pine in a single room in Greenwich, Conn. His process takes months. ''First I distress it, and then I sand it, and then I distress it again,'' he began. ''Then I oxidize it. Then I sand it. Then I oxidize it again. Then I apply a clear coat of tung oil and then a color coat, and then I sand it, and then I come back and antique it with a color, and then I antique it again. And after that, there are two or three more finish coats.''
Certain clients, according to Mr. Welles, pay attention to the size of the knots. ''Personally, I like a tight grain with the small, delicate knots,'' he said.
Rob Atchley, president of New Mexico Timber and Viga in Albuquerque, said that pine has gotten knottier in recent years. He explained that knots form near the perimeter where limb meets trunk. As old-growth forests disappear and harvested trees become smaller, so does the amount of clear wood away from the perimeter.
Benjamin Nicholson, an architecture professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, calls the knots Rorschach ink blots because the way people respond to them reveals their views of individuality and imperfection. ''It's the culture of the blemish, which we think of as going against modernism's grain,'' he said.
During a conference on Mies van der Rohe at Columbia University last week, Professor Nicholson pointed out that Mies liked to use marble veined like wood. ''Mies,'' he declared confidently, ''was a knotty pineist.''
Others say knotty pine simply responds to a yearning for something solid after the ethereal architecture of recent years. Ms. Pilgreen said she was certain that Mr. Machado, the Boston architect, would come down on the white-is-right side of the pine question. Instead, he praised the Scandinavian quality of the rooms.
Mr. Machado's partner, Jorge Silvetti, chairman of the architecture department at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, had an idea: whitewash the walls up to the height of the fireplace mantel as a way of keeping the knots while adding some white surfaces to the architectural mix. To save the Pilgreen-Hays marriage, other architects suggested painting some rooms white while leaving some unpainted, creating a kind of zone system.
The knotty pine revival may have thrown Ms. Pilgreen for a loop, but Mr. Gambrel, the decorator, is reveling in it. ''It's a humble material, but it gives a room instant character,'' he said.
Something a homeowner just can't get from wallboard.