Why You Should Reconsider Wood Paneling

The mid-century wall coverings of the Midwest are back in style, baby!

Chair in front of wood paneling
Photo: Jan Stromme/Getty Images

If you're of a certain age, you might remember wood paneling—the 80s-era wall covering of choice in American rec rooms and basements nationwide. Recently, one of my colleagues wondered whether wood paneling might ever make a comeback, or if it was now permanently relegated to the status of laughable throwback gimmick. I realize that many people today are firmly against the look. But as for me? I think wood paneling is not only stylish but devastatingly underrated.

My love affair with teak and oak walls has its roots in childhood: I grew up in the Midwest, where I can confidently say that every house and business park built before 1995 featured at least one wood-paneled wall. Sure, many painted over it when it went out of style, but it was still there.

Wood Paneling in the Past

I spent my childhood playing in wood-paneled basements. We watched movies on cable in the wood-paneled den. Family members held their wedding receptions in wood-paneled VFW halls. Once you turned 21, you went to the wood-paneled pubs and bars with antique signs outside. Even the Catholic church my family attended every Sunday was wood-paneled—and of course, the rectory was, too.

Like anything you're surrounded by as a child, wood paneling blended into the background. But in high school, Mad Men came on the air, and suddenly I appreciated my retro mid-century modern chic surroundings. It was at that time, too, that I came across a car called the Jeep Wagoneer on Pinterest, in all its wood-paneled glory. Suddenly I found myself searching Craigslist to see if any of these cars were available in the tri-state area.

Wood Paneling in the Present

In the years following, it seemed like other people jumped on the bandwagon, in both interior design and pop culture. For one, there's Joanna Gaines's favorite accent: shiplap. Guess what, guys? Just because it's gussied up with a coat of white paint doesn't mean it's not wood paneling. And while it was a plot-related throwback, set designers for Stranger Things clearly had a blast with the Byer family's living room (that half-paneled beauty!) and the Wheeler's basement (an all-out wood-grained cavern!).

The fact is, there have some some signs of wood paneling's limited re-emergence. Just before I left Chicago for New York, a 40-year-old mom-and-pop bar in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood reopened after a two-year hiatus with new millennial owners. As they upgraded the space, they put fresh wood paneling on the walls. It is now a darling of Chicago's bustling bar scene, and our sister brand Food & Wine even named it one of the best new bars in Chicago.

The Power of Nostalgia

Trends don't happen in a vacuum, and if I'm going to analyze why wood paneling is once again making a bit of headway—not just in my own heart but in the design world. I think it's because enough time has passed that we're seeing it afresh. And we have some lingering feelings for those days gone by. The return of the 60s and 70s (you can't walk into a hip décor store these days without spotting fur pillows, banana-leafed wallpaper, macramé, and lush greenery galore) isn't about reclaiming a retro look.

I think we're subconsciously yearning for that time when our faces weren't constantly lit by our smartphones and tablets. In these stressful modern times, we decorate our surroundings to help bring us back to that simpler moment. There's something inherently cozy and warm—maybe even hygge—about wood paneling. (After all, the Midwest as we know it today was largely built by Scandinavian immigrants.) Maybe by putting wood paneling back into our living rooms and dens, we're trying to get back to a place of togetherness, when we really enjoyed the company of family and friends.

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