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Nov. 26, 2020 | Thursday
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Arch-i-text: Panel and wainscot
Circa 1910 wainscot and plate pail. (Brian Marshall)

I love wood. Whether it’s left natural or painted, there’s something about it that resonates in me on a very basic level.

Perhaps it’s the fact that no matter how finely finished, there is a living quality to wood that no manmade substance can duplicate.

Or, it might be its tensile strength and malleability that appeals to me. Then again, it could be that our species has used this natural product for so long and in so many ways it has simply become a part of our DNA.

Still, for whatever reason, wood makes my heart sing, which is why historically correct wall panelling and wainscoting have been a longstanding part of my design aesthetic.

So, let’s start at the beginning by asking the question why our ancestors living in a timber, stone or structural brick house might choose to panel their interior walls with wood?

The answer is very simple. Wood is a natural insulator which, when applied to interior walls, not only improved the interior environmental conditions but also mitigated any dampness transferred via the stone/brick walls.

For timber-built homes, it provided a secondary barrier to air movement through the cladding. Further, the partial-height wainscot offered similar benefits while also protecting the more delicate plaster above from damage caused by chairs, boots, spurs and the like. 

In 17th- and 18th-century North American homes it was very common to see ceiling-to-floor wood panelling. Then, at the turn of the 19th century, the English Neo-classical and Regency movements in architecture (plus the Federalist style in the U.S.) challenged the long-dominant Georgian, causing a shift in both exterior and interior design.

Full-height panelling became passé as designers extolled the virtues of wainscot and plaster (the latter often hung with wallpaper).

While there was significant debate around the correct height for wainscoting, there was one rule that was commonly adhered to: the cap (or dado) was set level with the windowsills to create one continuous line defining the top of the “pedestal,” according to the Classical Orders.

Over the decades that followed, wall panelling would see a cyclical resurgence in popularity, particularly during the Eclectic Revival and Edwardian periods. Wainscoting, whether raised panel, flat panel or beadboard, ranged from classic height to two-thirds wall height.

Today, both full-height panel and wainscot are recommended by discerning designers. And, with the advent of pre-manufactured kits, it's more affordable than one might think.   

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