Feature Article - May/June 2003
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Natural Wonders

Trends in interior design, whatever your budget

By Kelli Anderson

Bold colors are good choices for high-energy spaces like this kids' gym at RDV Sportsplex in Orlando. For more information on this facility, check out the "A Magical Place" profile.

Whether your look is high-energy chic or earthy naturalism, natural stones, woods, metals and glass are some of the popular decorating materials being used by designers to communicate a facility's essence. It makes sense that quality materials matter most for the important first impression at an entrance or the spaces where people spend the most time, like locker rooms. Whether you have a Rockerfeller-sized wallet or are operating on a shoestring, the key to creating a successful environment is knowing where and how to place these materials for the greatest impact.

Natural stone desktops in the lobby, for example, can introduce an element of elegance and permanence but can be more affordably mimicked by their solid-surfaced counterparts or even by colored, poured concrete. Maple or cherry wood control desks can still say "elegance" with wood laminate substitutes, rich wood stains and wood paneling. If at all possible, desks should look custom-designed with such features as recessed niches that house the computer and minimize clutter. Neat, clean and well-crafted control desks shout volumes to patrons' impressions of professionalism.

Stone floors, like slate, are very popular, but for much less cost, stone-textured tiles and stained concrete can still convey the natural, luxurious feel of stone.

"For lobby and circulation areas, tile or concrete are about the most durable solutions there are," Bouck says. "And colored concrete, if it's done well, is a great solution and is becoming more popular. We also like to use quarry tile because it's super durable and inexpensive. You can create some great patterns and can get a great bargain on it. It looks fantastic. Porcelain tile is terrific as well."

However, he cautions, having a mottled texture for such surfaces and using darker grouts that hide tracked-in dirt are important details to consider. Don't fight it, hide it.

Linoleum, a high-traffic alternative to stone or tiles, has come a long way in fashion circles and has become an increasingly popular flooring alternative thanks to its versatile inlay design features, endless color arrays and ease of care. For children's areas, it can be especially ideal. It is not only water-resistant and therefore easy on cleanup, it also can add great fun to the space when inlayed with elements of bright color and fanciful designs, like super-sized paw prints or geometric patterns.

Carpet, though comfortable and cozy, is a less durable design solution, needing to be replaced about every five years. However, the expense can be minimized if a smaller area is inset among a perimeter of tile, if carpet squares are installed that can be changed out as needed or if a carpet service is hired that contractually replaces carpet without installation cost. Even an attractive area rug can be easily replaced when worn and can add warmth, luxury and definition to a lobby space.

These decorative fish heads in Wheat Ridge's aquatic area are a prime example of using simple materials in a creative and unique way. They were created using inexpensive computer sign cutting technology to cut 1/8-inch stainless-steel sheets into fish profiles. The fish appear to be supporting the heavy wooden beams when actually they were applied after the beams were in place. Also notice the limited the use of wood to the roof joists. The overall impression is that the entire ceiling is wood, which helps create a warmer, more inviting environment. Light painted acoustical deck spans between the joists, which helps reduce noise and provides a reflective surface for indirect lighting.

Using wood trims, wood chair rails, wood beams or wood-surfaced columns can convey the feel of a high-end space without the high-end cost. Beams and columns, in particular, if placed so that the eye follows their line into the distance—say, down a corridor or across a ceiling—can give the space the illusion of being much more wood-constructed than it actually is. Consider carefully if the light-colored tones of woods like maple or the richer tones of cherry, for example, will work best for the look you're after.

Current popular metals like stainless steel can be used as accents from everything from light fixtures and handrails to detail work. In one particularly successful use of economic material in a highly creative way—what Bouck calls a "MacGyverism"—his design company bravely took on its client's demand for fish. Taking sheets of stainless steel, they cut out fish heads to form whimsical brackets to hold the wooden beams in the natatorium. In a facility from an agrarian community, corrugated metal sheeting topped with a chair rail became wainscoting in a lobby trying to feel more urban and less Green Acres. It provided not only a visually perfect effect but was also highly durable and required no maintenance or painting.