The Ruins of Reclaimed Wood

  In the combination Taco Bell and Urban Cabin [via  Buzzfeed ]

In the combination Taco Bell and Urban Cabin [via Buzzfeed]

Two years ago I wrote about what the reclaimed wood trend meant during its rise to popularity. I wrote about it because it was fascinating to see a rather unremarkable material develop so much resonance so fast, to the point that by 2014 wood was everywhere in any establishment that fancied itself “authentic” or "modern" or “independent”. And for the initial years of its rise, there was something about wood that did feel this way; wood lent a feeling of presence, weight, and style to public spaces that in previous years tended to be sterile or plastic in their design. Reclaimed wood was a sudden intrusion of texture that you could touch, a reference to the wilderness, to cozy spaces in the wilderness, to old-timey lumber bars with wood walls that felt like being in an old whiskey barrel. Wood felt nice to be around; tactile; solid; sheltering.

Now it’s 2016 and old wood has become spectacularly annoying as a design meme. I can’t recall ever being annoyed by a material and its ubiquity the way I am annoyed by the constant appearance of wood in commercial spaces in 2016. In the same way that wood once felt nice and comforting, it now feels the opposite, like a bad, boring pop song that gets stuck in your head that you can’t get out. Wood is the earworm of contemporary design; repetitive and relentless, cropping up again just when you thought you’d moved on.

Reclaimed Wood is like “millennial” in this way: it doesn’t really mean anything at all, just that there is a business that would like to sell you something based on an identification it hopes you will make with what it is selling.

Maybe because of its annoying repetitiveness, however, I am fascinated again with what wood signifies now that it is being adopted by every new hotel renovation and chain restaurant redesign. What this means is that we will be living with institutional Reclaimed Wood for another five years at least, or more, long after the new wave indie restaurants and their followers have moved on. In a year or two, when hip design spaces are well into some other decor, we’ll still be eating breakfast at business conferences in a chain hotel’s farm-cabin inspired cafe.

When I see businesses opening today that are decorated in old or quasi-old wood, it feels disorienting in that it feels like the store is referring back to a design trend that itself feels historical, like the cafe is referencing the old days of 2010 when Instagram was new and rusticity suddenly seemed modern. The rustic referent of the chain hotel’s wood walls has disappeared, replaced by a reference to capitalism and its swift appropriative movements itself. Reclaimed Wood is like “millennial” in this way: it doesn’t really mean anything at all, just that there is a business that would like to sell you something based on an identification it hopes you will make with what it is selling. 

Design crashes are interesting though, in that they necessitate change and design innovation. I wonder what interesting ways enterprising people will go about ‘fixing’ the wood which is now everywhere. The nice thing about wood is that it can altered easily, with sanding, painting, carving, etc. Maybe we’ll enter a maximalist, Ruined Wood phase where all the distressed wood becomes further distressed and de-natured beyond recognition. Maybe the remains of Reclaimed Wood will make it interesting again, as we live on in the apocalyptic ruins of what was the briefly imagined utopia of the urban cabin.