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 lead 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.
A staunch fan, maximalist designer Kelly Wearstler—who has covered walls, floors, and even a staircase in limed wood, and has a number of cérused wood product designs (including a seriously glamorous new dog bed)—remarks that “it highlights the inherent beauty of the wood and gives it movement and depth.” “It adds a super-refined pattern to any environment,” she says.
Celebrated San Francisco-based interior designer Jay Jeffers, who recently launched a new home décor and entertaining collection for Arteriors (which includes several black cérused wood trays and ice buckets) reveals that “it has a great deal of flexibility in the amount of drama you would like to see.” Cérusing wood, he says, “gives it additional depth and texture” but allows you to play with how much you want to enhance the wood.
Where can you use it?
Furniture is an easy place to start (scroll down to shop some of our favorites), but cérused woods are also gorgeous choices for kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, flooring, walls, and even ceilings. “Personally, I adore a full cérused paneled room,” Fulk says. “It's striking and glamorous while still inviting. It's not as heavy feeling as a traditionally paneled room. Recently, we cérused all the cabinetry in a kitchen remodel. We finished it in a beautiful foggy lavender—that, with huge slabs of white marble and warm unlacquered brass hardware. Sublime!” Meanwhile, Wearstler recommends considering it for hardwoods, and Jeffers praises its versatility… “I have used it on furniture pieces, on my line for Arteriors, and recently completed an entertaining space in a private home in which the entire room was paneled with cérused oak,” he says.
Stylistically, it’s also quite versatile and could suit many different styles of home. “It has a Deco vibe, but it is also thoroughly modern,” Fulk says. The classic way of treating wood “looks great in many applications, so I’m not surprised it is so popular,” Jeffers remarks.
If it sounds to you like cérused wood is something reserved only for the custom designer treatments, think again. Accessible brands like Serena & Lily, West Elm, and Jayson Home have all released cérused wood products recently. And for a more affordable alternative, you can even try your own hand at it with a DIY project: We love this cérused oak secretary that design blogger Jenny Komenda of Little Green Notebook refinished herself with a few affordable materials. Wearstler tells us, “It’s incredibly forgiving. In our studio, we have several cérused wood tables that have maintained their exceptional beauty after years of use.” From the sounds of it, not only is it approachable to work with, it’s durable, too. What’s not to love?
Arsenic Pills and Lead Foundation: The History of Toxic Makeup. National Geographic. September 22, 2016.