Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Which do you prefer, shiny finishes or matte ones?  New-looking finishes, or old? Granite, glass, and chrome, or brick, wood, and iron?  

All of these have gone in and out of fashion over the years. We tend to think that any finish that’s popular in our own time is the ultimate word in good taste, but we couldn't be more wrong.  No matter how execrable an outdated finish may seem today, you can be sure that it, too, was the height of good taste in its own time, and that sooner or later it’ll be chic all over again.  So, you haters of Harvest Gold appliances--beware.

The popularity of some finishes--paint colors, for example--simply depends on the cyclical comings and goings of fashion.  Color fads are largely created by the industries involved, although clever marketing makes it seem like consumers are driving the demand.  And since the prior color fad must be portrayed as unappealingly dated before the “new” colors can perk up sales again, successive color trends are intentionally extreme, running from pastels to primaries to whites to deep saturated tones, the better to differentiate what’s hip from what’s hopelessly passé.   

New technologies bring other types of finishes to the fore. In the mid-19th century, for instance, raw brass, which tarnished to a clove-brown color if it wasn’t kept polished, was the usual material for hardware and plumbing fittings. In the late 1880s, though, the introduction of nickel-plated fittings quickly made tarnished brass obsolete. Despite nickel’s propensity to wear through to the metal underneath, it remained popular until the arrival of more durable chromium-plated finishes around 1930.  

Chrome has had an exceptionally long popular run because of its ease of maintenance.  Still, when earth-toned colors were being pushed during the 1970s, brass came back for an encore.  This time, though, a clear lacquer coating was used in an attempt to keep it permanently shiny.  Eventually, in their never-ending pursuit for fresh offerings, manufacturers also came up with artificially patinated finishes--brushed brass, antique brass, and the like--that tried to mimic the warmth of natural patination.  

This brings up another force behind popular finish trends that can influence both marketers and consumers alike--that of historical circumstance. After World War I, for example, American soldiers returned from the front charmed by rural Europe’s timeworn vernacular architecture, and by the early 1920s intentionally rustic or distressed finishes such as hammered iron, mottled stucco, and adze-marked wood were showing up in new houses.  During the late Twenties, though, another historic event--the 1925 Paris exposition that give the world Art Deco--helped drive a complete reversal of this trend.  By the early 1930s, smooth, highly polished surfaces such as glass, tile, and Monel metal had made rustic and patinated finishes look laughably outdated.  

And so it goes--one finish vogue arriving, another departing.  Yet no matter how unfashionable a finish may seem to our marketing-biased senses, rest assured it never permanently leaves the scene:  One of today’s more popular finishes, oil-rubbed bronze, is neither plated nor lacquered, and therefore oxidizes to a clove-brown color and develops wear highlights very much like the old unlacquered brass of Victorian times. In other words, after a century and a half, some things are pretty much back where they started.

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