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Brown furniture is the new green

Robert Hudson Westover
Office of Communication
November 5, 2019

A picture of a small wood chair with an aqua colored seat cushion.
Get that brown furniture from behind the ropes and use it. Although in this instance, these very rare and high-valued furniture pieces should be where they are at the Winterthur museum in Wilmington, Delaware. (Courtesy photo by Robert Westover)

Here at the USDA Forest Service, we really like it when folks use wood products of all kinds. Or, as I like to say, wood is good. So, as an antique wood furniture admirer, I’m concerned these days about the future that’s now being called “brown furniture” by much of the media and the fact that few young people seem to want to own it.

According to many interior design websites and magazine like Architectural Digest, this lack of interest in brown furniture also extends into newly manufactured, every day practical wood-made items like dining room tables, chairs and even bedframes.

Many baby boomer parents and grandparents are dismayed to discover that their children and grandchildren are telling them to give away family heirloom “brown” furniture. Sometimes this means discarding rare or literally one-of-a-kind intricately carved pieces passed down through generations of their wood furniture-loving ancestors—a family’s heritage lost forever.

A picture of a rare 1850s French top sideboard, it looks similar to a large wooden chest.
For only a few hundred dollars, a rare 1850s French top sideboard is rescued by Paris-based artist James Purpura. Mr. Purpura installed the unit in his art studio near the Louvre Museum. (Courtesy photo.)

Unfortunately, finding eager potential custodians outside the family circle of this often large and ornate brown antique furniture creates yet another problem. Giving it away to strangers isn’t always an option for the same reason that their heirs don’t want the stuff: many in the younger generations don’t see any intrinsic value in this furniture, often these heirloom pieces are simply thrown out, sent to the landfill or burned.

And this is where the green concern comes in.

What many aren’t aware of is that wood furniture is like a little carbon bank. When a tree is harvested and turned into a useful object, like a dining room table, the carbon remains in the wood until it is either burned or decays.

This means that grandma’s gracefully carved rosewood china cabinet holds carbon from, well, maybe hundreds of years ago. Or that new wood chest of drawers is actually contributing to a greener earth simply because the tree and its carbon is now in your home. And best of all, the new tree planted in its place is now absorbing new carbon—and the green cycle continues!

So whether it’s old or new wood furniture it stores carbon. Period. My hope is that the new hip and cool home interiors will be filled with wood products—a mixture of the old and the new—becoming a timeless trend like a white T-shirt and blue jeans or white pearls and a black dress. So, next generations, do our planet a big favor and make brown furniture the new green.



A picture of a dining room table and chairs are from the mid-1800s.
The old meets the new. The dining room table and chairs (center) are from the mid-1800s. The credenza (left) is from the early 1900s, and the sofa in the background is a newly manufactured piece by Herman Miller. (Photo by Robert Westover.)