Modern rustic

Modern rustic

Forget garish colour or fussy fabrics – pure rustic style is about interiors pared back to the bare essentials, where brick, stone, timber and textiles combine to create an atmosphere of profound calm.

Words Emily Henson and Joanna Simmons. Photography Catherine Gratwicke

We want our homes to look authentic, not flashy; we want our rooms to feel grounded and safe, not self-conscious and styled. In the modern rustic home, muted colours, natural materials, sensual textures and a love of simple, skilfully designed furniture creates spaces with real warmth and integrity. Every piece must earn its place, from the sofa to the saucepans, and any place, from a compact cottage to a featureless modern apartment, can gain gritty personality when peppered with rustic notes. 

Where to begin

The modern rustic scheme takes inspiration from textures which already exist within your home. Anything from a smooth wooden floor to an exposed brick wall forms a rich, organic backdrop. The trick is not to obscure a good thing. Let a stone wall sing out and leave a steel support in place as the proud centrepiece of a space.

Redefine your space

Try to see the potential of any elements that are ugly or unsophisticated. Often a little room to breathe is all that is needed to take a solid architectural detail such as a fireplace or beam from heavy to heavenly. Brick can be painted so it appears to melt into its surroundings. Consider cladding walls with timber – or even a single piece – for added drama. For a more rugged look, source timber from a demolition yard. It will come in a variety of finishes, producing a richly textured effect. 

Add visual interest

Modern rustic gains much of its character by mixing the rough with the smooth, so have fun contrasting textures. Spread a sheepskin over a smooth concrete floor or add a polished aluminium lamp to a knotty wooden desk. Restraint is vital; too much wood, too many sheepskins, and your home will feel cluttered and dull. As with other interior styles, plenty of tidy, open space is crucial to keeping the modern elements sitting comfortably alongside the rustic ones.

Be seated

Choose furniture from across the decades. Family heirlooms, upcycled pieces, classic mid-century design and even the odd contemporary find can all be used to great effect. Stick to a palette of uniform colours and materials, as filling a room with furniture of all shapes and sizes will undermine the modern feel.

Colour it neutral

Steer clear of the browns and terracottas beloved of traditional rustic looks. Charcoal greys and soft beiges are more of the moment, creating a sophisticated, neutral backdrop. Flashes of pomegranate red, mossy green or even egg-yolk yellow will create welcome contrast.

Light it up

Raw surfaces and deep, matte colours can swallow light, so add in a good mix of lighting. The main three lighting types are ambient lighting, which provides overall illumination; task light, which is strong directional light; and accent lighting, which picks out a particular object or feature. Your lighting ‘recipe’ will alter room by room, depending how and when each space is used. The classic anglepoise light is a handsome option; lamps with coloured glass or ceramic bases add welcome brightness and can be topped with a neutral shade for balance. Light can bring drama and glamour to a space, so add in a handful that both work hard and look gorgeous.

Different vintages

The only danger in raiding a junk shop is that your home can end up resembling one. Instead, explore the world of architectural salvage. Wooden parquet, stone flags, old cast-iron radiators and antique panelling can all be integrated for texture and warmth. Weathered metal handles make a nice contrast when added onto a new storage unit, while enamelled door numbers make a handsome display.

Think twice

Be creative when it comes to using your vintage finds. Create new shelves by wallpapering the inside of old drawers and mounting them on the wall. Turn old fabrics or clothing into cushion covers and other soft furnishings, or transform a birdcage or old crayfish pot into a dramatic lampshade.

Play with fabric

Polyesters and nylons strike an inauthentic note – so eliminate these man-made materials. Any natural textile or material will work well, and those with weight and durability are the best. Use silks and muslins sparingly and favour cool cottons, heavy linens and soft velvet instead. The textiles that brim with interest are the tactile woven, knitted and worked items, such as mohair throws, felted place mats and hand-embroidered textiles.

Add an animal

Animal hides are the ultimate natural material and introduce loads of warmth, comfort and pleasing texture. Cowhides are exceptionally durable and sheepskin is super-soft. Use them as rugs, of course, but also as throws, cushion covers or bedspreads. As a by-product of the meat industry, hides are abundant and eco-friendly.

Become a show-off

Display artworks, photographs, personal treasures and trinkets, but only where they are not in competition with the backdrop. Small groups of similar objects work best, adding interest but not too much visual clutter to a space. Books make a colourful yet low-key display, and can be stacked or colour-coordinated for visual interest. Jewellery can be hung from hooks allowing you to see all your pieces at a glance. You might even heap brooches or bangles into a beautiful stone platter or wooden bowl.

Bring the outside in

Feathers, seashells, driftwood, pinecones, birds’ nests and other items that come straight from the natural world are prime candidates for display. All kinds of unlikely bits and bobs become mini works of art once cleaned up and positioned thoughtfully. Remember the impact of house plants and fresh flowers; a small potted fern or just a few sprigs from the garden can create a pocket of natural beauty to calm the senses and put you at ease.

Kitchens: get the look

  1. Display a few items that combine form and function beautifully, whether that is a stack of handmade ceramic bowls, tactile linen napkins or chunky chopping boards leaning against a wall. Choose just a handful of objects and arrange them thoughtfully.
  2. Finishing touches, such as handles, can make a huge difference. Handle-less cabinets look modern, while constrasting timber-clad drawers with tiny glass knobs give sparkle to the wood. 
  3. Search out characterful staples, such as coffee pots, casseroles and kettles, avoiding anything super shiny or colourful. 

Bedrooms: get the look

  1. A double bed occupies a large surface area, so ratchet up its sensual appeal by layering on blankets and throws in a variety of materials. 
  2. If a piece of furniture doesn’t offer storage, keep it on the small side. For example, instead of a large bedside unit, perhaps a milking stool or shelf could do the job just as nicely. 
  3. Your bedroom is one space in which you can really experiment. It’s a purely personal room, and therefore is ripe for self-expression. Bedrooms are not open to public scrunity and are seldom seen by visitors, so they can afford to look different 

Text adapted and images extracted with permission from Modern Rustic by Emily Henson and Joanna Simmons, photography by Catherine Gratwicke, Ryland Peters & Small/Bookreps NZ 2013. 

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