And so, over the past 100 years, the "upper crust" has been struggling with how to be different. Either they had to build far more extravagant interiors at far greater costs, or they had to rethink what else they could do to set themselves apart from the commoners. If you have not been to Newport, RI, to visit the "cottages," do put it on your list of things to do. The astonishing scale and exorbitant lavishness of these Beaux Art palaces is almost mindboggling. Built as country estates away from New York City by people with names such as Vanderbilt, these cottages form a neighborhood of historic preservation homes.
With the plethora of wealth amassed by the industrialists, publishing magnates and owners of railroads, the desire for yet another home as a get-away became the rage. And so, during the same time frame as when pioneers were taking shelter in coarse cabins during the westward movement, a new type of log house—the lodge—was being built in the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York. The Americans who created these rustic estates labeled their new adventure "Camp Beautiful." It is a title equally appropriate to many cabins, log or rustic homes today.
The idea then was rustic luxury. It was formulated by William West Durant, president of the Adirondack Railroad and forward-thinking developer par-excellence. He loved the north woods and created the distinctive school of Adirondack architecture, which was a glorified log construction with extensive balconies adapted from charming Swiss chalets. While the exterior logs were left with the bark on, those in the interior were peeled and rubbed with beeswax. These log walls were rustic, yet smooth and emitted a sweet, woodsy fragrance.
These homes were not just summer homes, accessible by railroad and private yacht during pleasant months. In the winter, guests arrived by horse-drawn sleighs. Historic records reveal that 22 servants made sure guests who enjoyed Christmas dinner at Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's Sagamore Lodge ate in front of a roaring fire under sweet-scented beams and learned that roughing it was not too rough. (Note: Sagamore Lodge in New York's Adirondack Mountains was built in 1893, designed, built and first owned by William West Durrant).
ROUGHING IT IS EASY—TODAY
Today, this same solution is valid for the problem of too much refinement and an overabundance of material possessions. The rustic or casual country interior is embraced as a second home, and often the first and only home. This style is not to be confused with "common" rustic in which the owners cannot afford nice things and so live with worn-out, hand-me-down goods. Rather, this interior design theme is based on careful consideration and selection so every item contributes to the concept of a rustic retreat.
Ironically, only a little in these interiors is truly rustic. Most of the furnishings are quite comfortable and casual and often newly purchased. But often there are unrefined elements, which lend charm and character to the interior.
The rejuvenating effect in a rustic retreat is found in the right combination of backgrounds, furnishings, art and accessories. The unpretentious or rustic interior is one where we go to escape, to relax and let go of daily stress, to enjoy a good read, to meditate or go inside ourselves, or to bask in a great view or a spot of sunshine. It is a room that can just as easily welcome guests, setting the stage for great conversation and interesting interaction. It is a room that does not impose upon its occupants. It is an environment where things happen and each item seems to support whatever interaction, whether commotion or quiet, that takes place—even solitude.
BACKGROUNDS WITH CHARACTER
Backgrounds in rustic interiors have character. This means floors, walls, window treatments and ceilings are subtle but interesting. Character here might be defined as a large element that is not plain, smooth, bland or predictable. Rather, there are motifs that are intriguing or unique, and surfaces that are uneven or imperfect.
For example, wall coverings have textures or patterns that suggest nature; plain walls may be rough stucco or accented with natural or stained wood trim. Floors of wood have uneven grain and perhaps knots or worm holes—the imperfections that are associated with rustic wood. Carpeting has at least a two-toned effect, maybe high contrast as in a salt-and-pepper look or a beige and brown as in the currently popular Berber/shag or "splush" carpets.
Folk or ethnic rugs with abstract, geometric motifs are good choices as they help to establish the rustic theme. Area rugs in natural wool, including floccati, neutral-colored shag or even designer rugs that proximate ethnic folk rugs, are viable options.
Window treatments for rustic interiors can be draperies or alternative window coverings. Draperies would feature casement-like textures, whether a translucent or solidly woven textile. The fabric will be textured with nubs, slubs and irregularities or made of novelty yarns or combination weaves. Homespun, cretonne, casement, osnaburg, brushed denim or duck, boucle, hopsaking, heavily textured batiste, malimo, unbleached muslin, coarse oxford cloth, ticking and tweed are all good choices providing the weight and hand are in sync with the style of drapery or top treatment.
Rustic wrought iron or other metals are fantastic choices for a rustic interior with pinch pleats or a creative kind of pleat atop the roughly textured drapery. Valances or cornices are options for rustic interiors. Let the fabric choices be earthy and the metal accents and ornament enhance the theme, then let creativity do the rest!
Wood blinds are an excellent selection—a natural finish with exposed wood grain is best. Cellular or pleated shades with slubby, coarse or linen-like textures make excellent backgrounds as they carry the theme without being too noticeable. Likewise nubby or heavily textured vertical blinds are a no-nonsense treatment that can be a well chosen window covering solution.
Once the background is in place, turn your attention to furniture from a variety of sources. Originally, log cabins that became vacation homes were repositories for hand-me-down furnishings (many still are), and with that comes the eclectic charm interior. Avoid the tendency to match any two pieces of furniture, but let all the selections have character and pay attention to placement and balance.
You will be able to create a well-balanced, handsome, yet rustic interior if you keep in mind good proportion and appropriate scale, juxtapose interesting shapes, alternate upholstery and include high and low pieces as well as rounded and square shapes. Antiques mixed with new pieces, artifacts as well as cast-off finds, new furniture that is given a crackle or antique finish to look old, or recycled furniture from some point during the last 50 years refinished or painted and given an old look are all delightful possibilities.
Above all, comfort should be the key. Physical comfort means the furnishings are soft or comfortable to sit on and to touch. Visual comfort means the piece is comforting to look at—its shape, form, color, texture and, perhaps most important, its nostalgia or personal meaning gives the viewer that warm, fuzzy, happy feeling.
ART AND ACCESSORIES:
Art and accessories often are the very key to the rustic or casual country look. Even when the background is somewhat neutral and the furnishings bland or commonplace, the art and accessories can make the difference. Look to framed art: decorative art pieces with a nature, ethnic or country theme.
Those who can afford it usually prefer unique, one-of-a-kind furnishings from ethnic cultures from the far corners of the map and from civilizations long since lost. And if that sounds a bit too exotic, then check out the local antique store for a small find or two that will flavor the interior with a bit of rustic appeal. And don't overlook antique utilitarian objects such as small rusted farm implements.
Accessories from nature are among the best to establish a rustic theme. Consider collections of interesting rocks or shells, walking sticks or dead branches, even arrangements of twigs or weeds. Perhaps complete the room with framed nature art such as photographs, paintings, drawings or prints of a rustic nature scene. Nature is our best teacher and bringing natural objects into the environment as decorative art can be the finishing touch in the creation of a rustic interior.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.