How to Design With Rustic Style

Nature-inspired elements bring the outdoors inside

Don McAulay Sr. measures a board for one of the company’s rustic offerings.

Photo courtesy of Rustic Furniture

From the Lakes Region to the White Mountains to the ubiquitous pine forests, New Hampshire is a state of natural beauty. But why let the great outdoors have all the glory? Adding a little nature-inspired rustic charm to your interior design scheme and landscaping can make any home — from the streets of downtown Manchester to the hills of the North Country — feel like a picturesque lakeside cabin.

To say Don McAulay Jr., a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, likes rustic style is an understatement. McAulay and his father, Don Sr., head up Massachusetts’ Rustic Furniture, an innovative company with many customers in the Lakes Region and White Mountains. The father-son duo makes custom furniture that draws heavily from nature, incorporating natural materials such as roots and tree branches into their work. “We saw it was a trend that was getting bigger,” McAulay says. “And we started making some bent willow chairs and tables and things like that, and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

Even if you want to achieve a slightly more conventional rustic look, McAulay says looking to your surroundings and staying true to your environment is the most important place to start. “Try to incorporate what is in the natural surroundings of [your] house to begin with,” he says. “I would start with materials that are local to the area and also start simplistic. Start with something that is a small piece.”

McAulay recommends beginning with accents, and lists door trim and smaller pieces of furniture like end tables as good places to begin. Whatever you choose, McAulay says he likes using natural elements in his designs because “there’s just too many Ikeas in the world.”

Scott Blundo, owner of Rustic Stone & Garden Design in Moultonborough, agrees with McAulay about the importance of staying true to nature. “I always think bringing elements of nature into the home is wonderful,” he says. “It’s the stones themselves that I want to highlight. View things how you would view them in nature.”

Perhaps the easiest way to achieve that effect, Blundo says, is by building a stone wall since it can be tailored to an individual’s taste and lawn. He explains that stone walls run the gamut from old-timey, imperfect styles to highly manicured looks, meaning they can work for just about anyone. Things like accent walls and fire pits, Blundo says, can also be easy ways to try out the rustic style. For inspiration, Blundo recommends that you start by observing the stonework you see driving around and to check out the ever-popular Pinterest on the web.

Rustic decor designed by the McAulays.

Above all, though, Blundo stresses that it’s important to let the simplicity of rustic design shine through. “Don’t try to be too fancy,” he says. “If it looks too contrived, then it probably is getting a bit contrived.”

And, Blundo adds, rustic style doesn’t only work for log cabins and mountain cottages. Smaller accents, he says, can work for more urban environments. “Pick up smaller stones at the beach or from a memorable hike and arrange them on a shelf, on the bathroom vanity or on a windowsill,” he suggests. “It’s not only a great accent, but a wonderful memory.”

Julie Fergus, a Wolfeboro-based interior designer, also mentions accents as a great way to tackle the rustic look, even if your surroundings are anything but. “A mantel, an accent table, a lamp, a piece of furniture or a structural feature” are all great options, she says: “Rustic can be achieved by not being overly matchy-matchy. It can be rough wood, salvaged wood, well-worn paint on a surface, re-purposed metals or re-purposed architectural elements.”

Fergus says the rustic look appeals to her because it’s low-key and un-fussy. “To me, rustic suggests or implies a relaxed feeling or element of design,” she says. “Rustic can suggest a casual style among elegant and/or traditional.”

But, she cautions, beat-up or tacky pieces shouldn’t be mistaken for the beautiful patina of rustic elements. “Well-worn is something distressed over time, or a finish that is carefully distressed to look like such and not a highly manufactured fake distressed finish,” she says. “There is a difference between well-worn and junk.” 

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