At the core of the Bunny Williams Home collection lies a somewhat rebellious rejection of a trend in commercially made furniture, where matching sets are often offered in endless finish options. Bunny, however, has always resolved to offer fewer, higher-quality finishes for the furniture she designs. Pieces come in one—sometimes two—finish options, but each is carefully considered, whether stained, painted, gilded or otherwise.
“Design is all about proportion and scale. It can be Roman, or it can be contemporary, but when the proportions, scale and finishes are right, it will always be very beautiful.”
Bunny cites the right finish as a vital ingredient to good design—The third musketeer to proportion and scale, if you will. But the search for the right one is not always straightforward, and in fact, it has proven to be one of the most time-consuming parts of the design process. Whereas scale and proportion can be specified down to the millimeter, creating the right finish requires face-to-face communication and interaction with a piece.
Kyle Marshall, Creative Director of Bunny Williams Home, recently accompanied Bunny on a trip to one of our workshops for the purpose of finalizing the finish selection for our new collection. When we asked him what makes finishes so complex, he summed it up in one short sentence: “It’s really about building up layers.” Here is our attempt to peel back some of those layers.
For centuries, finishes have been applied to furniture for a number of reasons ranging from practical to purely aesthetic. At the very basic level, finishes are intended to seal wood furniture and protect their surfaces. However, finishes have also been used historically to disguise and decorate.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American furniture was crafted mainly from locally available hardwoods like cherry or maple. These pieces were often stained to mimic more exotic and desirable varieties that were only available abroad, like mahogany.
Small, independent furniture makers or those with early DIY endeavors didn’t waste time painting or staining surfaces that weren’t visible. As a result, the insides of drawers, bottoms of tables or other unseen surfaces might have remained raw. A similar mentality applies today as manufacturers look for ways to cut costs, a key consideration when Bunny launched her furniture line in 2008.
“I produced the furniture and went directly to the factory because I cared so much about the quality of the finishes. I wanted the insides and the bottom to be as beautiful as the top. Sometimes companies make decisions to cut the costs, and those decisions are out of your hands. But I wanted to produce it myself. We did the design and worked for hours on the finishes, which is what’s so different about these pieces—but also what makes them so beautiful.”
Another reason early provincial pieces may have been stained or painted was to mask perceived imperfections in the wood grain. But what some finishes once sought to hide, others now celebrate. Cerused oak, like that seen on the base of our Georgica Dining Table, is one example of a finish that embraces rather than rejects the natural figure in a wood’s grain.
Before it was used in wood finishing, ceruse (a powdered white, lead-based pigment) was used by sixteenth century aristocrats as a cosmetic for skin whitening. Elizabeth I of England and Isabella d’Este regularly used the makeup to achieve their desirable snow-white complexions—a standard of beauty of the time. (Both are believed to have died from prolonged use as it wasn’t recognized as toxic until decades later.)
Lime paint, which is mineral-based, is now commonly used, though the term “cerused” has stuck. Oak’s open grain makes it one of the best varieties for the finish, which can be applied over a stain or directly on to bare wood.
After one to two coats of lime paint are applied, the excess is rubbed away, but the ridges of the woodgrain retain vestiges of the white coloring. The resulting weathered finish, seen above, mutes the original color of the wood while highlighting the texture of its grain.
“Every room should have some gold in it. It reflects light, and to me it’s not formal—to me it’s happy.”
Bunny has always gravitated towards gold, so its no surprise that gilt finishes make frequent appearances in her interiors.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of gilding, though Egyptian tomb paintings and reliefs from the 23rd century BCE are the earliest known examples depicting gold being hammered into thin sheets.
The gilt gesso technique, where layered adhesive is used, appeared in England at the end of the seventeenth century with the work of Jean Pelletier. A Huguenot craftsman who had settled in London, Pelletier specialized in both gilding and carving, two skills that were usually practiced by separate guilds. His unique skill set secured him a hefty royal commission, and between 1699 and 1702 he supplied a series of carved gilt wood furniture for William III’s quarters at Hampton Court Palace.
Gesso, a plaster prepared from powdered chalk, was applied onto the wooden surface in at least 15 consecutive layers to achieve the desired thickness. Once dried, craftsmen would carve designs into the new surface. To prepare the new surface for gilding, a red clay called bole would then be spread onto the surface.
James Moore, a royal cabinetmaker working in the early eighteenth century, further developed this technique with increased flourish and exaggeration to the carving.
Gilt finishes are used throughout the Bunny Williams Home collection. Here, gilding accentuates the whimsical scrolled arms of our Adrian Bench. Gold leaf is a fragile and fickle materials, which makes this finish one of the most fun to watch in action. Gilding also carries over from furniture into categories like mirrors and lighting, serving as a common denominator for every ceramic lamp in the collection.
Options are truly endless when it comes to painted finishes, particularly since faux painting techniques can be employed to simulate other materials such as marble. The Egyptian era is also one of the earliest examples of faux painting techniques, where Pharaohs employed artists to replicate wood graining.
During the Renaissance, the French and Italian schools emerged as the leaders in faux finishing techniques. The French took a highly detailed approach that sought to replicate and trick the eye, which led to the term trompe l'oeil (French for "deceive the eye") being used to describe their hyper-realistic work. The Italians, on the other hand, took a less laser-focused approach, resulting in softer simulations.
Early finish samples for our Ambrose Console included a painted, faux marble design for its top. Finishes are shown first on small samples before being applied to a sample piece at full scale.
A close up of its top, in its finished form. The finish leans towards a painterly interpretation of the marble.
Often times, Kyle notes, an artisan’s skills and expertise may dictate which direction a finish goes, which makes the process of refining them also one of new discovery. When asked how he and Bunny know when they’ve achieved the right finish, he simply replies, “You know it when you see it.”
Schorsch, Deborah. “Gold in Ancient Egypt.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/egold/hd_egold.htm (January 2017)
McKinnon, Charles. "LAPADA Guide to Giltwood Furniture." https://lapada.org/guides/lapada-guide-giltwood-furniture/
Zwingle, Erla. "The World's Greatest Goldbeater." In Craftmanship Quarterly. https://craftsmanship.net/the-last-master-of-handmade-gold-leaf/ (Spring 2018)
Finish samples for the Bunny Williams Home collection are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.