Trend Alert: Cérused Wood

Julia Millay Walsh

What’s old is new again in the realm of interior design. Over the past few years, we’ve noticed a few of our favorite designers taking a liking to an age-old finish, céruse, which, we must say, has a curious history. Dating back to the 16th century, the white-pigment-based lead was originally used as a cosmetic. The best stuff, which acted as a powerful skin whitener, was imported to England from Venice and used by the likes of Queen Elizabeth I. However, if absorbed into the skin, it could actually led to lead poisoning, so it eventually fell out of favor in the realm of beauty.

The solution later drew attraction from cabinet makers, who used it for a decorative technique known as “cérused wood” or “limed wood,” in which they filled the grains of wood planks (usually oak) with white lead, creating contrast against the stain. The limed oak effect became popular in the Art Deco era, and was pioneered by French interior designers Jean-Michel Frank and Austrian furniture maker Paul T. Frankl. In the '50s, the look was widely imitated by contrasting a whitened grain against a black stain rather than a light one. Today, we’re seeing a mix of both lightly and darkly stained cérused woods as designers mix eras like midcentury modern and Art Deco in their rooms, and craftsmen are experimenting with different types of woods with porous, open grains.

If you’re worried about developing lead poisoning from your furniture, have no fear: These days, the effect is created with nontoxic waxes that evoke the Elizabethan look.

So what’s drawing interior designers to it?

San Francisco-based interior designer and creative director Ken Fulk of Ken Fulk Inc.—who, in his design for private SF social club The Battery, paneled an entire bar (the Musto Bar, featured below) in black cérused wood—tells us he’s “drawn to the texture and movement” in the wood. “There’s an incredible depth, giving it an almost rustic elegance,” he says.

Are you into this trend? Tell us in the comments below!

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