An ode to the omnipresent wall coverings of the Midwest.

August 03, 2017
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In an all-staff meeting last week, our deputy editor shared some controversial news: Wood paneling may be back in style. She had read it in an Apartment Therapy post, which deemed the mid-century modern trend not a laughable throwback gimmick, but cool. Something you might even consider doing in your own home. Some asked in total disbelief: “Really?” Others groaned. It seemed as if our entire team was against the look. That is, everyone but me: I am one of those people who thinks 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 fashion, but it was still there.  

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I spent my childhood playing in wood-paneled basements. We watch 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 the antique signs outside that your older family members frequented. Even the Catholic church my family went to 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 in my free time to see if any cars were available in the tri-state area. None were available in the price range of a 17-year-old Best Buy employee.

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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 in the more traditional sense: remember Stranger Things? The Byer family’s living room was a half-paneled beauty, and the Wheeler’s basement was an all-out wood grained cavern. But it wasn’t just a throwback trend created by set designers, either. 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 who decided to upgrade the space but keep all of the throwback charm. 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.

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Trends don’t happen in a vacuum, and if I’m going to analyze why wood paneling is back and better than before—not just in my own heart of hearts, but in design—I think it’s because we’re now seeing it with both fresh eyes and lingering feelings. Sure, the 60s and 70s are back. For example, you can’t walk into a hip décor store without spotting fur pillows, banana leafed wallpaper, macramé, and lush greenery galore. But I don’t think it’s necessarily just the “retro” look we’re trying to tunnel. I think we’re yearning for the days when our faces weren’t constantly lit by our smart phones and tablets, and we decorate our surroundings to help bring us back. 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. A place where, even if no one was talking, we were all together, enjoying the company of family and friends.

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