20 Gorgeous Ways to Style Stained Wood Furniture

Antique and vintage dark wood furniture has given way to lighter, more modern pieces in many homes — but designers are falling in love with 'brown' furniture all over again. Take their cues (and borrow their moves) to add history and character to your space.

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August 20, 2020

Photo By: Eric Roth Photography

Photo By: Eric Roth Photography

Photo By: Eric Roth Photography

Photo By: Eric Roth Photography

Photo By: Eric Roth Photography

Photo By: Joe St. Pierre

Photo By: Marius Chira

Photo By: Marius Chira

Photo By: Marius Chira

Photo By: Eric Piasecki

Photo By: Eric Piasecki

Photo By: Eric Piasecki

Photo By: Courtesy of Society Social

Photo By: Courtesy of Society Social

Photo By: Michael Khait

Photo By: Tomas Espinoza

Photo By: Suzanna Scott Photography

Photo By: Drew Kelly

Photo By: Marisa Vitale

Photo By: Dustin Halleck

Don't Believe the Hype

“Brown furniture often has a reputation of making a room look dark and dreary — however, this is not the case, says Liz Caan of Liz Caan & Co., a Massachusetts-based interior design firm. “In a lot of my projects, I like to mix in brown furniture to support the overall aesthetic and design of a room.” Here, a handsome desk’s Eastern silhouette complements ornate artwork, vivid drapes and delicate wallpaper.

Get Warmer

Caan contends that stained pieces which could read as dull or lifeless can actually be instrumental in enlivening a room: "The right amount of brown furniture in a white or brighter space will create a warm and inviting atmosphere,” she says. Exhibit A: in this massive foyer, a honey-toned dining table focuses two stories’ worth of white space in a cozy vignette.

Cut Costs With Character

Consider this eclectic seating area, where a well-loved dresser adds gravitas to pop ceramics and playful teal paint. “More often than not, clients have brown furniture already within their home as these pieces have been passed down from generations before,” Caan says. “These pieces hold the most sentimental value and history; antique pieces have the most soul.”

Hit the Books

It’s considerably easier to know where pieces should go when you know where they’ve been. “I always encourage clients to do their research and to learn about the different styles and time periods that these pieces come from,” Caan says. “This will help homeowners find the perfect brown furniture for their space and be prepared when they decide that they need more for their home!”

Compare Apples to Apples

Can't figure out what a piece that catches your eye (or a piece that’s already in your home) is worth? “I suggest inquiring about the lineage or heritage of the piece and looking at similar pieces from the same time period to compare appearance and price point,” Caan says.

Head Inside

To get a good sense of how well a piece was put together (and has weathered the years since then), open it up. “Look at the drawers and see how they are constructed,” Caan says. “See if the piece is made of solid hardwood or veneers and if it needs to be refinished; these are all important considerations before purchasing.” Leaving it open and turning it into a bar once you’ve gotten it home is also a solid (no pun intended) idea.

Get Picky

“Use brown furniture sparingly; choose one or two pieces and make them a focal point,” advises New York City-based designer Alexander Doherty, who created this airy master bedroom. “Consider contrasting the furniture with lighter or more contemporary pieces.”

Stick to Recent History

If you’re looking to make an investment, you don’t need to be an archaeologist: “Brown furniture from the 18th and 19th century has lost its value over time, unless it is really high end,” Doherty says. “I recommend concentrating on pieces from the 20th century as they are still highly valuable and collectable today.”

Make It Midcentury

Need a bit more direction? “Try to focus on European pieces from the 30s and 40s and Scandinavian pieces from the 50s, and look for strong architectural lines,” Doherty suggests.

Aim for an Assortment

Designer Kevin Dumais cautions against matchy-matchy choices when selecting brown furniture for a space: “Never have all the same wood finish in one room,” he says. “Mixing wood species and finishes, just like metals, will help the space feel unique as if you curated everything over time.”

Watch Your Tones

Consider how this credenza’s wood complements the sepia in the photographs above it and stands out against the painted wall behind it. “Our signature is a warm neutral interior, and often the wood tones are celebrated for their color, texture and warmth,” Dumais explains. “With gray or taupe walls, golden teak and rich dark walnut wood finishes can add definition to a space.”

Finish Strong

Heirlooms and heirlooms-to-be should be beauties, but Dumais notes that you can always give them makeovers. “When shopping for case pieces, look for quality handmade furniture, and in a finish that highlights the natural character of the wood species. Whether antique, vintage or newly handcrafted, well-made and unique furniture can evolve with home trends, and as with most, you can always have it refinished to give it an update.”

Branch Out

Roxy Te Owens of Society Social favors architectural cuttings and indoor plants, as in this sunny living room. “To avoid a dark and dreary space, we like to pair brown furniture with lighter colored accents like whites or neutrals as well as greenery — not only does this create a softer look, it keeps the deeper hues airy and the space bright.”

Go Against the Grain

Looking to make a serious investment? One-of-a-kind burlwood pieces like this credenza and the coffee table in the previous slide are prized (and priced accordingly) because the natural artistry of their patterning goes with everything. “Burlwood is one of our favorite [types of wood] as it’s truly timeless and features unique abstract graining which is visually appealing and doesn’t fall flat,” Owens says.

Make a Splash

Designer Kendall Simmons offset this venerable vintage piece (and the warm wood structural beams reflected in the mirror atop it) with crisp, supersaturated blue paint. A framed clock creates a visual relationship between the door and dresser.

Cultivate a Mood

Atlanta designer Kim Regas used an opulent, curvaceous dresser to establish a romantic tone in this master bedroom, then riffed on its history with a traditional landscape painting and shapely, well-worn vessels. Paler flooring provides background rather than competition.

Think Luxe

Real talk: A quirky-eclectic space would have a hard time handling an utterly opulent marble-topped dresser. Accordingly, this San Francisco room is all about refined details and rich materials: designer Jonathan Rachman used a tufted Chesterfield in emerald velvet, verdant hand-painted wallpaper and an interior window box of elegant maiden hair ferns to frame his find.

Make a Casual Arrangement

This handsome Bay Area foyer could skew formal — both its architectural stairwell and the credenza beside it are awfully high-concept — but the antique tricycle, large-scale photograph and unfussy greens designer Antonio Martins arranged to accent the space give it an air of ease.

Leave Room to Breathe

Natalie Myers took an oh-so-southern-California, less-is-more approach to this Los Angeles living room: a simple brass wishbone accents the midcentury credenza, and an area rug and desert photograph are all the company it needs.

Bring On the Brights

An old-school roll-top desk like this one would disappear in a dark space and feel fussy surrounded by pastels. Designer Jodi Morton situated it shoulder to shoulder with bold artwork and a dazzling array of patterns; here, it’s a bookish addition to a quirky cast of characters.

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