The luxury residence has always been a space where designers and stylesavvy homeowners could flex their material muscle. Material selection is not just an opportunity to express creativity; it’s also an opportunity to bring a sense of honesty and integrity into the home. From selecting semi-precious stones and intricate marble inlays to reclaimed woods, engineered natural stones and ancient stones from Europe, designers and homeowners are opting for optimum authenticity for today’s spaces.
“In a world of mass production and increasing homogeneity, working with craftsmen who use Old World techniques to create their products and finishes brings a depth of character to our clients’ projects, a depth that makes them feel they live in a home with soul and substance,” says Patrick Sutton, a Baltimore-based interior designer. “The quality of the materials we choose for our projects and the craftsmen who create them are somewhat akin to the relationship chefs have with their farmers, butcher or truffle supplier. The finished product is only as good as the ingredients, and to source the best requires years of relationship building and trust.”
Stone is frequently used by designers to add dimension and texture and, sometimes, to even suggest a previous life. One company, Ancient Surfaces, has been quietly sourcing ancient stones from Europe to place in luxury homes in the United States and abroad for over 20 years. Working closely with boutique antique dealers and designers, the company is the design industry’s “best-kept secret” for ancient stone, according to co-owner Tony Benetti. “Ancient stone adds so much history to the home and brings us back to the roots of our ancestors,” explains Benetti. “A lot of our clients are drawn to antique stone because of the history, and they want to bring a feeling of the Old World into their home. It’s not for show. They feel that it makes their home feel more complete.”
Ancient Surfaces specializes in all types of stone pieces, ranging from ancient pavers to fireplaces, entryways, kitchen hoods and fountains. An in-house carving practice, overseen by chief director and designer Jonathan Sinclair, means that they carefully restore and supervise the piece-by-piece reassembly of every antique stone fountain, stone fireplace and stone entryway. One of the company’s most in-demand products, however, is ancient slabs from Malta. Measuring about three inches thick and aged about 500 years, the massive slabs — or “antique butcher blocks” — are made of oolitic limestone, “the world’s densest limestone,” says Benetti. They are being used for kitchen countertops for added texture and historical context. Because of their weight, the company works closely with custom cabinet makers, builders and designers to ensure that the homeowner’s cabinetry can support the weight of these one-of-a-kind slabs. And when used as flooring, do homeowners need to make any special considerations? Benetti says no.
“Antique stone comes with zero maintenance,” he says. “With new stone, you never know how it’s going to react with high foot traffic or the wines we drink. With antique stone, it’s been tested by time. No matter what we expose it to, it will maintain its natural beauty. When it comes to installations, we do a lot of education with installers to ensure they are mimicking the same standards from hundreds of years ago. We also educate clients to ensure they know about the product they are acquiring.” On the other side of the coast, Cavendish Grey is another leading purveyor of architectural stonework. Under the direction of English antique dealer and designer Roger Entwistle, Cavendish Grey is known for custom design and exclusive selection of flooring, fireplaces, fountains, door surrounds and other architectural elements from Europe. Entwistle’s projects span all over the United States, with contemporary fireplaces and contemporary limestone flooring.
“People want clean lines right now,” he says, before adding that he has recently seen an uptick in requests for more antique looks. “At the moment, I have a lot of projects in wine country, throughout Napa and Sonoma.”
Like antique stones, reclaimed or antique woods often suggest a previous life and impart a sense of authenticity to a home, whether it’s through texture, their battle scars or natural patina. “It’s not just the fact that the wood is over 100 years old, but it has a story to tell,” explains Stefan Hartung, owner of South Carolina-based Vintage Elements, which sources reclaimed French terra cotta tile, antique and vintage French oak flooring, French terra cotta and time-worn limestone from Europe.
Antique French oak planks are among the rarest and most expensive of reclaimed woods. The planks typically are taken from floorboards and wallboards in old warehouses and farms in northern or northwestern France — where they have been exposed to an outdoor and ammonia-rich environment, resulting in oak boards that are aged through and through. Once Vintage Elements receives the wood, the company carefully mills, restores and finishes the wood to its original beauty.
“It’s so different from anything you can find,” says Hartung. “Why not put something special into your home that can become a nice conversation piece? We oil and wax the floors so they are easy to maintain, so you can put all the wear and tear you want on them. They actually look better and more authentic the more wear they receive. That’s the whole attraction.” Vintage Elements offers rustic wide planks (typically about 7–8 inches wide and ¾ or 7/8 inches in thickness), herringbone or chevron parquet strips, and intricate hand-pegged woven patterns of Versailles and Chantilly parquet slabs.
Vintage Elements uses proprietary solutions rather than stains to ensure proper preservation of the patina of the reclaimed French oak boards. In terms of color palettes, homeowners who want a more traditional look will usually stick with the authentic brown tones, while homeowners who want a cleaner, more modern look will opt for cooler tones, such as gray or white lime washes.
“We work with the naturally occurring coloring agents that are already present in the oak wood,” explains Hartung. “Our solutions interact with the naturally occurring tannins and change the color of the wood. We find tannins throughout every oak plank, but they are more concentrated in the denser grains around knots, resulting in great color reactions that completely differ from stains. Stains are absorbed where the wood is soft, giving you a typical stained-finish look. Our aging and coloring process occurs where the wood is denser, creating a more even patina that looks more natural and continues to age during the life of the floor. If you think about it, that’s usually how a cut-open tree looks — the knots and surrounding areas are darker, as they contain more tannins.”
Ancient applications of stone are another way to bring a sense of history into a home. Iowa-based Aalto, which specializes in luxury bespoke marble inlay, fuses high design with the age-old art of architectural stone. Founded by Harri Aalto in 1988, Aalto can create one-of-a-kind pieces and designs from historical reference for clients, or they choose a whole floor design from the company’s extensive archive. Aalto’s most popular designs are the Capri and the Versailles, of which it now has hundreds of versions in different sizes, color palettes and styles.
Explains daughter and spokesperson Annie Aalto: “My father expanded the traditional ideas of medallions and borders for the floor and started designing whole-floor designs that treat all the formal areas of the home as one. It was this idea that led him to create open borders and flourishes that extend beyond the circumference of medallions. What makes Aalto unique is that we approach each stone project from the perspective of fine art.”
Aalto’s projects can take anywhere from four weeks to a year to complete. The design process can be as intricate and detailed as project needs dictate, involving sketched layouts, digital renderings and shop drawings with as-built measurements before artisans in Iowa even begin to craft the floors. When it’s time to install, each piece of stone is hand-assembled into sections. Projects range from $100 to $800 per square foot. Most of the company’s residential projects tend to be in the coastal regions of the United States and in the classical style and, hence, are less impacted by shifting design trends. “Typically, clients are looking for floors to complement the wall and ceiling treatments they are using,” says Aalto. While most contemporary floor surfaces are trending toward a white and gray color palette, Aalto still works predominantly with a beige fieldstone. However, Aalto says that they are now incorporating a quantity of semi-precious stone, such as lapis lazuli or amethyst, due to client demand.
Semi-precious stones are one of Los Angeles-based Menea Group’s most unique offerings. Founded by president Matteo Enea, who is originally from Lake Como, the Menea Group is best known for bringing Italian-made products to the United States, like its high-resistance handmade wood flooring collection. However, clients who are looking for something unique for their backsplashes, countertops or washbasins may gravitate toward the semi-precious collection.
“Our semi-precious stones are a composition of real and natural gemstones that come from Brazilian caves, and they come in a shell shape that you can easily see on the slabs,” notes Enea. “These are integrated with resin and marble powder in order to give strength to the product. That is why this product has no limits with its use.”
Enea says the semi-precious stones can be easily customized according to the needs of the client, and they are “very easy to work with.” And since they have a polished surface, they often add instant elegance to a space.
Natural Engineered Stones
Quartz is one of the most highly sought-after high-end surfaces today. Despite slow acceptance in the luxury residential design sector when it first debuted on the market nearly two decades ago, quartz has now surpassed granite in popularity, according to a 2017 National Kitchen & Bath Association report. Demand for quartz countertops has grown at a steady rate of 28 percent per year since 2012, according to Freedonia Group.
“The main appeal of quartz is that you can get the timeless beauty of natural stone in your home, yet you don’t have to maintain it,” says Summer Kath, executive vice president of business development and design for Cambria, a Le Sueur, Minnesota-based luxury quartz manufacturer. Cambria has earned its current standing in the luxury design industry. As the only family-owned, American-made producer of natural stone surfaces, the company maintains its own quartz mine in Quebec, Canada, as well as a state-of-the-art production center and fabrication and distribution centers across the U.S.
“We invested in innovation and R&D, so we can create the most luxurious looks on the market today,” says Kath. “We’re creating a brand that stands for value, elegance, style and sophistication that surpasses granite. That transformation has finally taken place in consumers’ minds.”
Countertops are still the most popular application for quartz, but Kath says quartz is being used in other areas of the house where the homeowner wants a cleaner look, such as shower surrounds, tub surrounds and fireplace surrounds. “It looks beautiful and amazing because there is no grout,” says Kath. The most in-demand colors are the classic whites, with Brittannica — inspired by the white marbles — being the No. 1 choice among today’s homeowners. The company just added a striking matte black surface to its collection, called Blackpool Matte.
“Everyone wants matte — that non-shiny material,” says Kath. “Grays are starting to make their way back onto the scene. We have a number of gray designs right now that are monochromatic and matte, inspired by concrete, which people really love. The beautiful thing about quartz is that we’re not beholden to Mother Nature, but we can create looks that have never been seen before.”
By Alyson Pitarre
This article originally appeared in Homes & Estates magazine.