Matte and Natural: A Guide to Using Subtle Finishes and Hardware in Contemporary Design

Updated on October 19th, 2023

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Welcome to the world of contemporary design where subtlety reigns supreme. This Redfin article explores the art of using matte and natural finishes alongside understated hardware to create spaces of enduring elegance and timeless beauty. Whether you’re restoring furniture in your Oklahoma City apartment, or wanting to change the cabinets in the new house you bought in Tampa, Florida, the following experts share their insights on achieving authentic, sophisticated, and inviting interiors. Here, they uncover the secrets of blending the contemporary word with nature’s timeless design.

natural wood furniture with oil finish

1. Use oil to accentuate natural wood

“We prefer oil finishes on our wood projects for the home. A clear, satin or matte oil finish really highlights the natural beauty of the wood,” suggests custom furniture designer, Birdloft. “It’s timeless and can work with any design aesthetic. There are a lot of trends out there, which can be fun, but it is important for us to think of our work lasting for generations. We believe that quality materials, living finishes that allow the wood to change over time and clean, functional design will always have a place in our homes.”

custom furniture design by Birdloft

Courtesy of Birdloft

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2. Follow a less is more approach 

“Balanced integration is key to success,” says Natural Furniture. “It involves a thoughtful curation of finishes and hardware that harmonize with the overall design scheme, rather than overpowering it. A principle to follow is restraint; less is often more when it comes to these elements. Select finishes and hardware that amplify the design’s essence, contributing to a cohesive and inviting atmosphere and exuding a sense of understated luxury and timelessness.

Navigating challenges in this approach involves avoiding overindulgence. One common mistake is using too many different finishes or hardware styles, which can create visual clutter. Instead, opt for consistency and choose finishes and hardware that complement one another seamlessly.”

3. You’re in charge of the hardware’s weathering

“A satin finish on modern furniture lets the grain do all the talking, while still providing a layer of protection to keep the piece looking brand new for years and years,” says Custom Cottage. “Yet for those interested in a more controlled weathering, a simple carnauba wax/oil rub leaves the owner in charge of the number of marks and the aging process. While the rub needs to be applied every few weeks in the beginning, it can quickly make a down-home look that is unrepeatable.”

Custom wood coffee table by Custom Cottage

Courtesy of Custom Cottage

4. Originality cannot be copied

Furniture designer, Mark Whitley Studio tells us that their “main focus is to accentuate beautiful wood grain using natural oil finishes that protect the furniture but do not interfere with the story the wood has to tell. Most door and drawer pulls are shop made to add another layer of texture to the piece while further developing balance and aesthetic. Uncoated solid brass, bronze, or copper are my choice, as they will age with time, developing a patin that no factory finish can replace. My clients want originality in their homes and in the things that surround them. 

Natural finishes and natural metals exude sophistication because they are genuine and will only look better as time passes. Sure, keeping things natural can be more time consuming, more expensive, and more difficult, but compared to glossy, sprayed finishes and off the shelf hardware, the outcome is well worth the effort.”

natural wood furniture design from Mark Whitley Studio

Courtesy of Mark Whitley Studio

5. Be diligent in the upkeep

“I have definitely given a lot of thought and testing into matte and dull clear finishes for modern wood projects. Two of my favorites are Rubio Monokote and OSMO,” says custom cabinet craftsman, George Ramos Woodworking Inc. “The general  idea is to allow the material itself to be the star and to make it look as if there is no finish on it at all. This along with minimal or even no hardware can really create a streamlined, modernist yet classic aesthetic that clients really appreciate at this moment. The look is also timeless because the material itself will always be beautiful and durable.”

Walnut piece completed by Rubio Monocote

Courtesy of George Ramos Woodworking Inc.

6. The more natural and clear, the more timeless

“We make our hardwood selections based on the beauty and movement of the grain,” suggests Black Rose WoodCraft. “Matte and natural finishes allow the wonder and life of the tree to speak for itself. We don’t want to overdo the end result with too much flash but instead give it a stage to dance on. If we decide a piece could be better complemented with brass inlay or piece of hardware, less is more. It’s the cherry on top. Naked beauty is timeless. It’s when we deviate too far, that style feels forced.”

7. Embrace imperfection

“I believe wood should speak for itself,” says custom wood worker and designer, Sallie Plumley Studio. “Using natural, clear finishes accentuates the beauty and color of the wood that I am using. Every piece of wood has a story to tell, and “imperfections” like knots, sapwood, and color variations tell that story in a beautiful way. 

Choosing hardware that doesn’t distract from the wood is an important design decision that pushes the wood to tell its own story. Lovers of contemporary aesthetics want authenticity. They want a story. They want things to be real. Using beautifully applied, natural oil finishes offers exactly that. Using hardware that is subtle but made out of natural metals or wood speaks to that authenticity.”

Sallie Plumley Studio furniture designs

Courtesy of Sallie Plumley Studio

8. Custom will never go out of style 

“Natural finishes have a way of bringing out earthy beauty in materials such as solid wood, showcasing the unique grain patterns and textures that make each piece of antique or reclaimed hardware look and feel truly one of a kind,” says Greg Pilotti Furniture Makers. “The versatility and ease of maintenance of finishes on materials such as live-edge wood and modern quartz stone make a lasting expression in today’s design trends. Our craftsmanship is rooted in the understanding that custom hardware should not only be functional but also a reflection of individuality and style that is truly unique. Overcoming shifting environment challenges includes being intentional with color choices with a mind for color psychology in modern design and crafting hardware that is both ergonomic and accessible.”

Interior design and wood work by Greg Pilotti Furniture Makers

Courtesy of Greg Pilotti Furniture Makers

9. Natural wood can be designed with any style

“Amish Designed furniture effortlessly incorporates subtle matte finishes and hardware into contemporary aesthetics,” says Jake’s Amish Furniture. “The enduring appeal of matte and natural finishes, thoughtfully paired with hardware, is a hallmark of contemporary design. Crafted from solid hardwood, these pieces stand the test of time amidst evolving design trends. Striking a balance between elements and overall design, they enhance spaces without overwhelming them. These unique and sophisticated designs cater to contemporary aesthetics, reflecting the importance of individual taste and elegant design.”

Polished wood furniture by Jake's Amish Furniture

Courtesy of Jake’s Amish Furniture

10. The design is adaptable

“What sets these elements apart is their adaptability. Matte and natural finishes possess a chameleon-like quality, seamlessly integrating into a range of design styles and palettes. They provide a neutral canvas upon which other elements can shine, allowing for easy evolution with changing tastes. This adaptability ensures  that spaces adorned with these finishes and hardware remain relevant and appealing, even as design trends ebb and flow,” says PDX WOODWORKS

“Another benefit of using a natural finish is the close-to-the-wood feel. As stated earlier, film finishes create a barrier that can be cold or uninviting. There is a strong appeal to be able to feel the grain of the wood on your fingertips, connecting you to the piece and it’s past as a living, breathing being. Natural oils and waxes enable this connection.

A common challenge for designers lies mostly in the creation of unique hardware. Design without parameters or guidelines is very difficult as the choices are  myriad. An approach to overcome this obstacle is staying true to the function and avoid the trap of trying to make a statement with every element of the design. For instance, machining a groove in a drawer face or edge leaves you with uninterrupted grain. Then, the very function of the element is hidden in plain sight,  allowing the main design elements to have their best impact.

Natural finishes can and should be utilized as intended usage allows. For example it may not be appropriate to use a wax finish on a conference table since its maintenance may interfere with the company’s work flow. The desire to apply a durable finish once and accept the visible damage that the table will accumulate during its lifetime should be recognized. Natural finishes aren’t for everyone or every situation.”

If you are represented by an agent, this is not a solicitation of your business. This article is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice from a medical provider, licensed attorney, financial advisor, or tax professional. Consumers should independently verify any agency or service mentioned will meet their needs. Learn more about our Editorial Guidelines here.

Holly Hooper

Holly is part of the content marketing team and enjoys writing about home improvement and lifestyle. Her dream home would incorporate both an industrial and biophilic design.

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