The interior design of many of our most treasured country houses in many ways reflects the characteristics of the English themselves. Restrained, understated, subtle and, occasionally, elegant.
These are all traits the Artichoke design team tries to inject into the kitchens and furniture we design for our client’s country houses. Many of these attributes are successfully delivered through the physical form of the furniture we design, such as the period mouldings we create for each piece, the width of the door frames we design and the proportion of the furniture. Achieving elegance through form can quickly be tarnished if the materials then chosen to adorn it are not well considered.
Our view here at Artichoke is that if a designer creates beautifully detailed kitchen furniture, very little else needs then to be added to detract from it. This is particularly so with classical furniture where mouldings and shadow inject a wonderful flow and ripple into the face of the work. Contemporary kitchens are so often adorned with striking and flamboyant marbles because the furniture itself has little creative substance to it. By introducing a bold patterned marble, the designer is simply deflecting attention away from the fact the furniture is principally flat and lifeless.
It is inevitable that as designers and makers of kitchens and domestic areas of country houses, we have a view on which marble worktops look most appropriate in traditional environments. Despite our work being principally in English country houses, we tend not to suggest English stones for many of our kitchen worktops. While many of them are extremely hard wearing (such as slates available from Lancashire), few of them can be used for pieces such as cook’s tables or islands. This is mainly due to the nature of their extraction from the rock bed. Most English stones are blasted from the quarry face with explosives, resulting in eccentric sized blocks usually no wider than two metres. By contrast, marble slabs are cut from the quarry face in huge rectangular blocks, allowing for a much greater size of slab (typically up to three metres in length). This makes marble much more practical to use in kitchen design. We explore which stones perform best for kitchen worktops in another blog ‘Ideas for Kitchen Worktops’.
In the Georgian and Edwardian periods of English architecture, Carrara was the favoured marble of choice. Not only was it readily available, but its quiet and understated graining also reflected the characteristics of the English themselves. It is luxurious without being opulent and it has a more understated veining compared to other more ‘vulgar’ marbles. It can be seen in many of England’s finest country houses such as Chatsworth. Marble Arch is built from Carrara. It has been described as the elegant workhorse of the kitchen, and it ages beautifully.
From a longevity point of view Carrara marble is also timeless. This works well with our designs which we create to sit comfortably and elegantly into their architectural surroundings for many years. If we are to create furniture today that will be admired by future generations (in much the same way that today we admire work created in houses like Chatsworth), then it is worth remembering Carrara for your project.
Up until the early 20th Century, the typical English country house was principally built from timber, stone and brick; simple when compared to the plethora of material types, fixtures and fittings available to today’s architect.
Of the timber choices available to those building country houses in the 18th and 19th centuries, the most common were European Walnut, Mahogany, Russian Deal, English Oak and English Elm. These timbers had different roles to play in the make up of the English country house, with Walnut and Mahogany being favoured for the more decorative elements and Russian Deal, Elm and Oak for the more constructional. Each had their part to play.
Fast forward to today, and most clients renovating a country house are increasingly sensitive to the original materials used to build it. But are the original timber species used still available, and what are the alternatives if they are not?
European Walnut and Mahogany
Then: Until the early 1700s Walnut was by far the most popular of the decorative hardwoods for use in English country houses. It had a soft colour and an interesting grain. But access to fine quality walnut ceased after 1709 when the Great Frost, the harshest European winter for 500 years, killed off much of the walnut stock in France. This triggered English cabinet-makers to look elsewhere for alternatives, with mahogany proving the outright winner. In 1721 the British Parliament removed all import duties from timber imported into Britain from the British colonies, instantly stimulating the trade in West Indian timbers including, most importantly, mahogany. With no competition from walnut, imports of mahogany into England rose from 525 tons a year in 1740 to more than 30,000 tons in 1788. In a relatively short period of time, mahogany had become the most popular timber for luxury furniture and architectural joinery in the country houses of England.
Now: Mahogany is no longer imported from the Americas although we do have old stock on supply which is reserved for very specific country house projects and feature architectural joinery doors. The only true mahogany currently imported into the UK is African Mahogany which is lighter in colour than Brazilian or Cuban mahogany which tend to be very dark orange. African mahogany also has a slightly wilder grain pattern. Between the two, our timber of choice would always be European Walnut for its softer colouring, its figure and its provenance.
Then: Russian deal is a high quality softwood grown in the Baltic regions of northern Russia, typically from Archangel and Onega. It is slow grown, tall, straight and dense, and with its fine grain is ideal for making hand painted interior architectural joinery. It was considered poor for exterior use however, with Rivington’s Building Construction Guide (published in 1875) declaring it unfit for work exposed to the damp shores of the UK. A more in depth piece on Russian Deal was written by us a few years ago, triggered by the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace where much of the joinery in the wonderful period locations were made of this material.
Now: Russian Deal is tough to get hold of, not because it is scarce but because the timber yards in Russia will only sell it by the boatload and the boards offered are only 1 inch thick. Specialist companies such as Artichoke are of no commercial interest to these yards. Scandinavian Redwood is the next best alternative. It’s almost identical albeit being a slightly smaller tree. Artichoke uses Scandinavian Redwood in listed country house projects where organisations such as Historic England require it or we feel it will benefit the feel of the final room and character of the furniture. The grain certainly looks good when over painted, and we have recently used it when designing and making a kitchen based around the National Trust’s kitchen at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Images from this project can be found here. The reason most furniture makers do not use Scandinavian Redwood is principally because of timber movement which can make it more unpredictable in modern homes with more aggressive heating set ups. Poplar or tulipwood is (in our mind) a more sensible choice if the project is to have a crisp hand painted finish with no grain grinning through the paint. It is resin and almost knot free and dense if you buy it from the right sources.
Then: English oak is rot resistant, making it ideal for exterior joinery and boat building (many Queen Anne and early Georgian English country houses feature repurposed supporting oak beams which once formed part of our naval fleet). Oak’s ability to resist rot, combined with its immense strength and availability, made it the perfect building material for timber framed houses, and many of the originals are still standing. Of course, much of England’s ancient forests are either now protected or gone.
Now: English oak is very much readily available in the UK, although it tends to be farm or estate grown, meaning the trees have not been cared for as a commercial commodity would typically be. This makes the quality of the available material quite unpredictable and inconsistent for interior furniture such as libraries or room panelling. Our climate in Northern Europe also means English oak trees grow slowly with wild grain patterns often being a feature. English oak is also a darker shade of brown than European oak and, combined with wild grain patterns and knots, can make the furniture appear quite rustic without careful selection. At Artichoke we prefer oak from southern France where our oak trees are grown commercially and therefore managed as a crop. Buying oak for a project from the same single stand in the same area of a woodland also gives us the confidence in knowing we will receive a high quality product with a consistent honey colour throughout. Having an excellent relationship with your supply chain is vital if the work is to stand the test of time for hundreds of years.
English Oak also makes an excellent flooring material; it ages beautifully and is hard wearing. Our friends at Weldon Flooring are worth talking to if you are working in an historic or new build English country house in need of a beautiful oak floor.
Then: Like English Oak, English Elm is known for its rot resistant qualities making it suitable for exterior work. As one of the largest deciduous trees in the UK, it was commonly used as a building material for roof frames and supporting beams. While extremely strong with an immense ability to withstand crushing forces, it was not as popular as English oak because it tends to move and split. This is the reason that smaller English country houses, and those with agricultural links, tended to favour English Elm. In the smaller English country house, cost was a factor and you could get more out of the larger trunk.
Now: Dutch Elm disease ravaged the UK’s population of English Elm between 1970 and 1990, and there are now few left, making English Elm pretty exclusive. The stock we now use for English country house work tends to be quite gnarled and rustic in appearance, so like English Oak it needs to be selected carefully. For a large English country house project we would nowadays consider European Elm, which is the same species but grown in Europe. Like oak, this material tends to be more consistent in its growth and straighter grained making it a good choice for doors and architectural joinery.
So in conclusion, for clients renovating or building an English country house, it is entirely possible to use timber that is appropriate to the period or to the original building materials, although its origin of source may now be different to the original.
If you are focussed on using the correct timber and materials for your country house project and are motivated to create furniture which will become an integral part of its architecture for many years to come, we’d love to hear about it!
Every 15 years or so I become fashionable. My worn jeans and faded blue shirt ensemble becomes the look for that season, and for a brief moment, I’m on trend. The downside is that I live in Somerset, so when everyone’s realised what the trend is here, everyone in London’s wearing something else.
As a company, Artichoke also avoids trends. Our kitchen designs are naturally classical. As designers of bespoke kitchens, libraries and principle rooms, we like the elegance that classical order, balance and harmony produces, and as fine cabinet-makers it suits us too. Classical design is steeped in tradition, and we enjoy making furniture in the traditional way, using hardwood that’s joined together with mortice and tenons, mason’s mitres and halving joints. It’s a tried and tested formula.
Around 12 years ago we began to notice a significant shift in furniture and room style, particularly among the super-prime homeowner in London. These buyers typically came from countries such as Russia and India where they mostly hid their wealth. Arrival on the safer streets of London gave these wealthy incomers a new found freedom to become more ostentatious, and overt displays of wealth through interior design became a popular route for those wanting to make a mark on their newly acquired English home.
The consequences were often terrifying. Suddenly clients begun to request furniture made from metal effect spray coated panelling and Swarovski crystal covered shoe shaped baths. Interior design became a heady mixture of luxury hotel interiors crossed with theatre. Design became depressingly temporary.
These bouts of interior design bling one-upmanship became more and more extravagant, many in the quest for elegance. In many cases, it failed horrifically.
More recently however we’ve noticed a welcome renaissance, with more discerning clients beginning to understand that elegant design is actually best achieved through gentility and restraint. An introduction to the English countryside, its pursuits and architecture has also managed to educate some buyers to the more muted ways of successful English classical furniture and interior design.
Wealthy buyers are now beginning to understand that quality English interior design and architecture is about style, grace, understated beauty, and above all, permanence. They are beginning to realise that it does not pay to be on-trend with interiors. Libraries, kitchens and dressing rooms cannot be replaced every time a new fashion emerges.
Our clients homes are too important to be treated simply as temporary or artificial stage sets with shelf lives, and the furniture design work we undertake here at Artichoke needs to have this air of permanence before it can be presented to the client. For joinery and fitted furniture to truly deliver an air of permanence, it needs to look comfortable and natural in its surroundings.
There are many ways of introducing permanence into design, but one sure fire method is to deploy classically inspired design treatments, mouldings, shapes, balance and proportion. When executed well it delivers breathtaking glamour that far outstrips anything that a bronze and crystal adorned flat door panel will ever deliver in its short lifetime.
What wealthy buyers have begun to understand it appears, is that less is more. Or to quote the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.”
As a craft based design business focussed on creating bespoke kitchens and furniture to integrate successfully into the fabric of buildings, we need a thorough understating of them, their histories and English architecture in general. We spend a great deal of time in buildings of all types, surveying them, designing their interiors and fixing into their structures.
We spend a significant amount of our time working in period property, so a firm grasp of their architecture, why they are shaped they way they are, what their fabric is and make up is very important to us. In a geeky sort of way we also find it fun.
The First Architects
During the early 1700s and before, the building trade was actually run primarily by craftsmen; mainly by joiners and carpenters. This makes a great deal of sense; most buildings of the time were timber framed. These craftsmen all had at least seven years of apprenticeships under their belts and were people of considerable skill.
During this period, the term ‘architect’ was used by anyone who could get away with it. Prior to the introduction of formal Italian inspired classical architecture by Inigo Jones in the mid 1600’s, English architecture was essentially medieval in form, with most houses being built organically and of timber frames with no formal design organisation, proportion or layout to them. There was no real need for architects. Most new buildings were designed by builders. There was no such thing as English Architecture in a formal sense.
The introduction of formality in building design came through classical architecture. Classical English architecture’s more rigid design requirements meant the need for someone to plan and design buildings more carefully. It also required new materials to achieve the various shapes, mouldings, carvings etc and this meant a greater understanding of the materials capabilities, stresses and loads.
To begin with, this new role of architectural designer was taken on by the joiner or craftsmen (occasionally it was also taken on by members of the landed gentry, plump with inspiration from their grand tours of Europe).
As you can see from the architecture of Banqueting House, Classical and Georgian architecture is complex; its shapes, mouldings, facades, heirarchys, planes and orders require the use of knowledge, academic formulas and new geometry that wasn’t necessary in the construction of timber framed houses. It’s introduction to England presented an opportunity for many craftsmen to better themselves, and many stepped up to the plate.
Two things typically happen when a new and game-changing thinking is introduced to any society. Firstly, an influx of quasi-specialists on the new subject appear, and in this case these were the people closest to the coal face; craftsmen and builders. Secondly, there is a publishing revolution to support the thirst for knowledge (the same thing happened during the introduction of the internet on the mid 1990’s).
Both happened during the introduction of classical architecture, particularly in the publishing of building pattern books to help educate the uninitiated about classical architecture’s forms and functions. Initially, these books were written by craftsmen for fellow craftsmen, and later they were written by new architects for potential clients. These books were used by builders to copy from, and they formed the pattern around which London’s early classical architectural structure and then Georgian architecture was born. These books also started formalising the way in which these new building designs were physically erected, and the most famous reference book at the time, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, was written by Batty Langley. Click this link to see some of our favourite plates from the book.
Main Georgian Architectural Materials
A formality of design also led to formality of materials.
Brick – The primary material used to build buildings in Georgian London was brick made from the clay beds of London. The exterior bricks were the best quality, with garden walls, party walls etc often being constructed from ‘place’ bricks which were as much ash as they were clay and often prone to defects. Knowing the quality of what we’re fixing into is important for Artichoke; we often design quite technically complex architectural pieces such as minstrel’s galleries or large bespoke kitchens with heavy materials, and we need to know well in advance how robust the structure we’re fixing into actually is. There are a number of times I can think of when one of our installation team has attempted to drill into bricks that have simply disintegrated.
‘Place’ bricks were the cheapest, with the most expensive being ‘Cutting’ bricks, a brick made from fine clay and capable of being very accurately cut. These bricks were usually reserved for exterior decorative architectural detail such as door or window arches.
Timber – The main timber types used by builders of the time were English oak and Baltic fir (Russian Deal is another name for it). English oak was considered a premium timber, as it still is now, and Baltic fir was used for most things structural. It was also used for interior architecture and was regularly painted and gilded. Before Georgian times, Baltic Fir was scraped and left unfinished, only being painted with the introduction of the Georgians. Our finishers need to be comfortable in being able to match 300 year old Baltic Fir; we have had do just this for a recent project in Upper Brook Street in London.
Oak was reserved for the best and most visible structural work such as window frames and some interior architectural detailing. Mahogany bought back from the West Indies was often used on high-end residences for panelling, hand-rails, panelled doors and so on.
Stone – Stone was used less in Georgian architecture than one may think, certainly for many of the more domestic London townhouses. It was usually Portland stone that was sometimes used decoratively in London homes for items such as window dressings, exterior cornices and porches.
For Artichoke, a good understanding of these materials, proportions and the English architecture it makes up is vital, not just because it helps us gain an understanding of what we’re fitting our work into, but also because it often informs our design decisions.
We cannot design a bespoke kitchen or library in a country house unless we have a thorough understanding of that house, its architecture and materials. Architecture informs our work, and for us, this is vital, as with the classical builders and architects of the time, our legacy is in our work.
As designers of bespoke kitchens, libraries and architectural joinery for period country houses, we often need to delve into the past to gain inspiration, and often that journey heads towards classical design.
It’s a common misunderstanding that formal architecture is rigid and inflexible. In fact we’ve found the opposite to be the case.
Granted, certain shapes and mouldings are very much guided by geometry, and certain entablatures and orders are to be used in certain specific ways, but the rest seems very much down to the architect. In fact, it’s this geometry that’s been the reason for classical architecture’s success around the world. Geometry gave the architecture a formula that meant it could be copied, time after time, beautifully, in the same way, without risk of changing the proportions and nature of the work. It was, in many ways, architecture by numbers.
One of our favourite reference books for classical interior architecture, bespoke classical kitchens and architectural joinery projects is The city and country builder’s and workman’s treasury of designs, written in 1750 by Batty Langley.
During the early periods of English Architecture it was not uncommon for architects to be from other trades, such as joiners, cabinet-makers or even, in Langley’s case, landscape gardeners. Much of London’s early architecture was in-fact “borrowed” from books such as his, and we have referred to many of them ourselves when designing bespoke kitchens or architectural joinery in classical country houses.
These are some of our favourite plates from this period of English architectural publishing.
What is so interesting about these plates are that they show so clearly the reason that classical architecture gained such popularity around the World from its origins in Athens and Rome. The use of geometry provided a known formula that could be copied and exported through books such as Langley’s. This allowed the proportions to be kept and thus copied repeatedly in the same beautiful way, time after time.
The best example of the exporting of architecture was the use of Langley’s book during the building of George Washington’s home Mount Vernon. The builder used Plate 51 from The city and country builder’s and workman’s treasury of designs when building the Palladian window below.