In a world dominated by bright, airy rooms, brown furniture has become synonymous with dated. Heavy. Clunky. Something best painted over, donated or given away to the highest bidder at a yard sale. But it doesn’t have to be that way—and four designers are ready to prove it. They’re big believers in the way a few pieces of dark wood furniture can add depth, richness and soulfulness to a space, making it the sort of place you never want to leave.
First, let’s get on the same page: What is “brown furniture?”
It’s a phrase thrown around a lot, and generally, we’re talking pieces made out of solid, dark wood, like walnut, teak, rosewood and mahogany. For years, light tones have dominated the market, but Society Social founder and creative director Roxy Te Owens says that’s all starting to change: People “are beginning to crave layered, ‘homey’ interiors—spaces that mix a variety of textures, patterns and colors, vs. minimalist spaces that feel un-lived in.” (On that note, she recommends trying out burl wood, since its abstract graining can liven up a room.)
These pieces—even if you’re staring down a chocolate brown leather sofa you don’t know what to do with but can’t live without (it’s just so comfy!)—can be key to giving your space character.
Second, how can I make it work with my aesthetic?
There are a few key things to keep in mind as you decorate a room:
1. DO: Work in brown furniture sparingly.
If you’ve avoided your mom’s hand-me-downs because you were convinced the look would weigh down a room, that may be because you’re used to seeing spaces where every piece of furniture was big, dark and dramatic. In this case, a little restraint can go a long way. “Choose one or two pieces and make them a focal point,” recommends designer Alexander Doherty.
2. DON’T: Stick to the same wood finish.
“Mixing wood species and finishes, just like metals, will help the space feel unique, as if you curated everything over time,” explains Kevin Dumais of New York-based interior design studio Dumais. “With grey or taupe walls, golden teak and rich dark walnut wood finishes can add definition to a space.”
3. DO: Seek balance.
“To avoid a dark and dreary look, 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,” Te Owens says.
It’s a statement echoed by Boston-based designer Liz Caan, who suggests balancing things out with a few lighter and more modern pieces. And, if you’re convinced you can’t have light walls with dark pieces, think again: “Brown furniture can make a light grey and white interior look spectacular and make the space warmer and more inviting,” she says.
4. DON’T: Ignore the shapes in a room.
Contrasting shapes and textures can make a room feel layered, luxe and well, livable. After adding a 1940s Scandinavian desk and dark wood cabinet to an office, Doherty softened up all of those vertical lines with a plush (but not frilly) daybed.
OK, Last Thing: How Do I Know Whether a Piece Is Worth Buying?
Some of the best pieces of brown furniture you can find are vintage or antique, but navigating the good buys from the “oh no, what have I gotten myself into?” moments can be tricky. Thankfully, the pros have some insights there too. Look for something that’s structurally sound, first and foremost, Caan says. “Check to see if the piece is made of solid hardwood and not veneer,” she adds. “Ask yourself how much you want to invest in refinishing and new hardware. I would also inquire about the lineage or story behind the piece (this is often a selling point for me). Finally, take a look at similar items from the same period and see what they’re going for in the marketplace and the differences in price and condition.”
Age matters too, in terms of resale value: “Brown furniture from the 18th and 19th century has lost its value overtime 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. Try to focus on European pieces from the ‘30s and ‘40s and Scandinavian pieces from the ‘50s, and look for strong architectural lines.” The more you know.