Faking it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 September, 2007, 12:00am

Cutting down a tree because you think it would look good as your floor is about as palatable these days as killing an animal to wear its skin or forgetting to take your reusable bags to the supermarket.

Just as fashion mavens have discovered that fake materials can take the place of the real thing, so have interior designers embraced the faux movement.

Finishes such as gold-leaf gilding have been faked for centuries, with only the experts any the wiser. In modern times, it started with painting: applying a base coat in one colour and dabbing or sponging a textured layer on top to create faux finishing.

Early attempts at fake wooden wall panelling, a 1970s trend, are best forgotten - they looked ridiculous. Ditto, the first timber-look flooring. Not only did the layer of clearly fake wood look glaringly obvious, but its durability was notoriously poor.

These days, technology has done the seemingly impossible with home furnishings: engineered interior products that are beautiful, functional, easy to install and, if chosen judiciously, guilt-free.

Engineered hardwood flooring makes sense because the surface or ornamental layer is made from an exotic timber of your choice, with the sub-surface layers composed of junk or scrap wood. This helps save forests because each tree goes about three times further than it would if it were made into solid wood flooring. It's also easier to install.

Engineered flooring can go straight over a concrete slab and is ideal for a humid climate such as Hong Kong's because its layers are moisture resistant and able to withstand buckling and rippling.

'From a design viewpoint, it's also a lot more contemporary,' says Stephen Chan Wai-Ming, of INX Design Studio. 'You don't get the knots and gaps of traditional wood, it requires less maintenance and it saves trees. This is important, especially for luxurious woods like ebony and walnut of which the world is running low.'

The idea is spreading to outdoor living, with new products such as ModWood engineered decking from Australia. Made from recycled wood and plastics, the product is a wood composite that looks and feels like natural timber, and doesn't need painting or staining. The design advantage is clean, straight lines without the faults of natural timber.

Faux stone veneer cladding, a garden design trend at the beginning of last century, is enjoying a resurgence, along with lightweight faux clay pots and sculptures. It joins other practical landscaping options such as fibreglass rocks, synthetic grass and even faux thatching, which is less flammable than the real thing and more waterproof, to put atop that must-have replica Balinese bale.

Another feel-good interior design choice is reconstituted stone. Quarrying affects the environment in a number of unfriendly ways, yet the earth's natural resources still look great in our homes. Although some man-made versions are less than convincing, Cultured Stone by Owens Corning achieves what Chan says is a '100 per cent natural look'. Manufactured using crushed stone, sand and cement, the product is applied like tiling and is suitable for both internal and external use. The brand's products are available in more than 21 textures and 100 different colours.

'You can now have that stone fireplace without knocking down a mountain to get it,' Chan says. Ditto the hip look of embossed metal flooring without stoking the smelter. Funky, soft, non-slip, sound-absorbent vinyl such as Novilon Metallic from Forbo Flooring will do the job nicely.

Even plastic has mastered the art of faking it. Formica's Authentix collection imitates metals such as copper, brass and stainless steel. Its DecoMetal range has the feel of real metal because it is - the surface layer is a metal foil laminate - and the company uses a veneer of engineered wood in its new premium range. Formica Veneer incorporates reconstituted wood veneers derived from fast growing species such as poplar, obeche, basswood and bamboo, which are all sourced from sustainably managed forests. The company's 30 new designs capture the natural appeal of real timber, using a combination of fine wood structure, colour and finish.

Stone-look benchtop materials such as Formica's Surrell range and Topaz from Wilsonart have the look and feel of granite or marble without compromising laminate's practical scratch resistance. Engineered stone surfaces such as CaesarStone and Corian have been around for some time, but new market entrants such as Zodiaq by DuPont claim to have upped the ante in terms of aesthetics and durability.

Chan says such cutting-edge products are a godsend for designers now that they have overcome the image problems that had long plagued plastics manufacturers.

'You can create the look of metal without the fear of rusting,' he says. 'And you can add great effects such as indents or patterns. You can have a very realistic-looking faux stone benchtop without the issue of weight. And the products come in large sizes for design flexibility.'

Wilsonart, which also makes hand-scraped artisanal wood flooring, points to the potential for cost savings. 'Today's modern laminates mimic more expensive materials but at a fraction of the cost,' the company says.

'Money saved on a countertop and flooring can be allocated in the budget for higher quality appliances or the addition of new windows that will help brighten a kitchen through natural light.'

Laminates are also available in replica leather and fur so creative types can design their own cabinets and wall finishes. For an even cheaper alternative, fabric shops in Sham Shui Po are great for sourcing vinyls that look like real hide, without sacrificing any cows.

Even wallpaper is using less paper. Ai-Wall from Japan is made from straw cultivated using minimal chemicals. Dandy Interior Products in Tai Po has a Botany range of real leaves applied to a backing of recycled paper. And a handy couple in the US even made their own wallpaper by cutting pages out of books (it took several months and 1,000 pages).

'There isn't any product you can't put on a wall,' says US interior designer Pamela Novakovich. Trend forecasters don't expect the faux look to be disappearing any time soon - in fact, quite the opposite, as technology produces ever more realistic materials.

And, they say, that will mean a return of faux painting - not the rustic rag-rolling and sponging effects popular in the 80s, but in more contemporary natural finishes such as lookalike granite or marble.