Look and DO Touch

Texture is a subtle—but important—element to consider in any design

I am just back from the beach. My boys and I are enthusiastic, if not avid, shellers. In the pastime of shelling, you have to release control; it is a remarkable exercise in learning to love what life brings you. The ocean offers what it will. Rather than being wistful or irritable, we find delight in what tumbles in at our feet and spend no time regretting the dearth of tulip shells or sea urchins, which might have been plentiful last year or even yesterday. Some years I gravitate toward species, but often I find that I am drawn to a particular color. A pale, almost translucent pink or a dark, matte gray, no matter the shape.

Sometimes we carry buckets, but mostly we end up cupping shells in our hands or sliding them into the mesh pockets of swimsuits. Inevitably, they end up in one spot in our temporary home. Set up like specimens in a case at a natural history museum, we place them in grids with near military precision. As I see them there, usually on a rough wood floor of an enclosed porch or on top of the smooth, green glass of an outdoor table, I’m struck by the different textures of our bounty. The ridges of the cockle, the smooth, matte surface of the sailor’s ear, the pointy peaks on the spiny jewel box and the slick and glossy depth of the black shark’s teeth each offers its own appeal. Inevitably, no matter how hard we try not to track it in, they are accented with a scattering of sand, which provides a white, tan and black speckled backdrop—a mess, really—between the treasures.

We could be purists, I know, and focus on only sand dollars or some such thing, but something would be lost. It is the combination of the colors and textures that makes each year’s collection so appealing. The same is true of interiors. We need the rough nap of sisal or raw silk or unfinished wood. We need the smoothness of satin. We need the shine of nickel. We need the slick of lacquer. As often as we consider the importance of the combination and balance of color and pattern and form, we need, too, to acknowledge that our rooms are richer when our eyes and our fingers dance over contrasting textures.

Great and GlossyID_texture2

Oh, I do like a bit of drama. Crazy shiny walls, deliciously slick cabinets, a simple Parsons table in a rich lacquered finish reflect the light and the light-heartedness of their owners. Set off against the worn nap of an antique rug or the industrial severity of stainless steel, a shiny surface ups the glam factor without tipping into excess. I’m not suggesting shine should be used in small doses—there’s nothing better than a richly lacquered dining room—but balancing with some humbler textures is the key.

Rough and Ready

As home has as much to do with the way things feel—both aesthetically and tactically—it may seem counterintuitive to say that you need something rough. But you do. My spaces contain a natural grass rug or two—I gravitate toward sea grass—often because I can’t afford the antique Turkish delight that I crave, but also because they provide a nice, neutral foundation for rooms that are usually layered with a lot of color and pattern. Grasscloth paper, available in every color under the sun, can do the same work on the walls with the benefit of being incredibly durable.

Flat and MatteID_texture4

Every time I tell a painter that I want a matte finish on my walls, his eyes skim the backpacks and the soccer shoes and the tennis racquets and he says, “What about satin?” He worries about fingerprints and the dust from crunchy, cheesy snacks like Goldfish that will, inevitably, end up on my walls. But I like the subtle backdrop. Unless the walls are the statement (see Great and Glossy) I like them to be what they are—background. Most paint companies have developed formulas that make flat paints scrubbable, and, well, sometimes you have to sacrifice a little elbow grease to get the look you want.

Smooth and Silky

There is a subtle sheen that is less dramatic than gloss, but with a little more oomph than flat. Satin and matte satin fabrics make beautiful curtains and table covers. Glazed linen or chintz, both patterned and plain, are some of my favorite fabrics, and they reflect the light in a subtle way that adds a gentle glow to the room. I recently saw burlap curtains with a band of satin inset from the edge; it was incredibly chic.


WOA_texture1Close your eyes and run your fingers across a number of surfaces in a room. The mind becomes curious and intrigued. That is what texture does to a room.

Daniel Houk
Trapp & Co.

Designing with texture embraces all your senses! It provides depth and layers of light and shadow. Texture gives so much more than just the sense of touch—it provides energy and purpose.

Connie Fey

I’ve always loved using different textures, especially on walls. A solid textured wallpaper with a metallic finish is a great look. Upholstering the walls with fabric has a wonderful effect, or paneling with leather can be very dramatic. Combinations of finish in the same color paint is an easy way to add texture to a wall. I like doing stripes and geometric patterns using flat and glossy finishes.

Alejandro Lopez
Alejandro Home Design

WOA_texture5Using different textures in a space adds depth and dimension. I love to use velvets or mohair with wool and cotton for a rich look that reads well-curated. 

Sarah Noble
Noble Designs

Texture can add interest in a monochromatic room where you are not counting on color to provide contrast. Rough and coarse materials, in particular, have more weight than large scale patterns and provide a subtle richness.

Carmen Thomas
Tran + Thomas Design Studio


Q: I can’t decide, after living here for 11 years, whether or not to paint the knotty pine in the family room of my 1929 traditional home. Right now it looks dark and full of wood. What to do? What to do?

— Joi Tydings

A: I say “Paint!” In fact, I’ve done it. Twice. My guess is that you are not really on the fence but worried that you are committing some crime by painting wood. Men in particular have a reverence for wood and seem to feel it is some sort of sacrilege to paint it, whether it’s walls or furniture or floors. Generally, this type of pine is not all that interesting (I’d feel completely differently about pecky cypress) and a few coats of paint will do you—and the room—good. I like the idea of painting paneling as it provides an interesting texture (and less headache and mess than tearing it out). If you do it yourself, do prime; it will help with chipping later.





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