A burr is a round growth that forms on the trunk of a tree. To the untrained eye, it’s nothing more than a deformity, but for furniture makers it’s an untapped treasure. Burrs (or burls in the US) are growths that form spontaneously when a tree is damaged or infected: filled with undeveloped buds they create a spectacular swirling lace-like pattern when sliced into thin sheets and are so unique and valuable that on California’s northern coast, illegal “burl poaching” has been reported.

Such rarity was not lost on the artisans of 16th-century Europe, who used burr, often from walnut trees, as a veneer in marquetry along with fine materials such as ivory, brass and mother-of-pearl. “For cabinets and beautiful, small side tables, it was a way of making wood look like a jewel,” says L’Objet founder Elad Yifrach. Burr’s popularity peaked in the early 20th century with the art deco movement, when geometric designs were accentuated with rich materials and dark, glossy finishes, giving rise to a theatrical, luxurious aesthetic.

A home in New York designed by Christiane Lemieux, with a burr-wood table by Lemieux et Cie
A home in New York designed by Christiane Lemieux, with a burr-wood table by Lemieux et Cie © Christiane Lemieux

Only a few decades later, burr made a comeback. “Because the ’70s were, in a lot of ways, a rebirth of the deco period,” says Christiane Lemieux, design historian and founder of Lemieux et Cie. Her Avenir dining table ($3,518) is “an homage to Milo Baughman, the American king of burl”. Alongside designers like Italian Willy Rizzo, Baughman created a taste for honey-coloured burr furniture, from low coffee tables to sofas in burr boxes. 

Now burr is back, thanks in part to the ’70s design revival. One such barometer is the funky ensemble at London’s 180 House, a Soho House outpost opened in 2021, where vintage coffee tables in mappa burr (from poplar trees) combine with other period staples. “It feels an authentic material to use for the architectural period of 180 House – a building that was designed [between 1971 and 1976] by noted architect Sir Frederick Gibberd,” says interior style manager Candy Murray. “The natural texture of burr wood means it sits comfortably in casual spaces, giving warmth and a sense of earthiness.”

Soho Home AW23
Soho Home AW23 © Soho House
L’Objet Edgar Vide Poche, £225

L’Objet Edgar Vide Poche, £225

Bryan O’Sullivan Collection Stamp stool, £4,200

Bryan O’Sullivan Collection Stamp stool, £4,200

The group offers similar pieces in its furniture collection, including mappa burr Wallace desks (from £1,271) and coffee tables (from £846), and a Remi table lamp (from £421) featuring a rectangular base in a dark burr, beneath a linen shade. “The burr will come to life when lit well,” Murray says.

Designer Bryan O’Sullivan was also inspired by the veneer’s retro roots when envisaging the velvet-upholstered oak burr Stamp stool (£4,200) for the debut furniture collection he launched last year: he has also used the “mesmerising material” in the entry way to his home in the Barbican. “I was really inspired by Gio Ponti’s burr panelling that was sold at Phillips a few years back,” he says of Ponti’s dashboard walls, a multifunctional system produced in the ’40s featuring shelves, drawers and lamps on a backing of walnut burr. Vintage pieces are rare but a Gio Ponti headboard and bedframe with a similar configuration is currently available for $80,000 at 1stdibs. O’Sullivan’s modern take is less rigorous in line. “I think the undulating and somewhat voluptuous form of our Stamp Stool is what makes it feel contemporary.”

Pieces in Ransom & Dunn’s Foundations collection
Pieces in Ransom & Dunn’s Foundations collection © Billal Taright

Other creatives are exploring paler burrs such as ash to create pieces with fresh appeal. “It’s definitely more contemporary, in a sort of bleached-out veneer,” says Julia Ransom of the Arc Burl floor mirror (£2,695) and Livon chair (£1,895) in Ransom & Dunn’s Foundations collection. “We love seeing them styled in different situations – like the mirror in a bathroom behind a bath, a stool pulled up next to a coffee table, or the two pieces together. “Versatility is a key element in how we think about products,” she says. “And also statement,” adds Johanna Dunn. “I think the burr lends itself to that.” They are not the only converts: Rose Uniacke has also used pale poplar burr to elevate her Floating Pedestal Desk (£17,400) and side cabinets (from £5,940).

Rose Uniacke Floating Side Cabinet, £4,140
Rose Uniacke Floating Side Cabinet, £4,140 © Rose Uniacke

L’Objet, meanwhile, has taken modern marquetry to the next level with its Edgar collection, which features a design with a triangle of burr dyed striking blue – “accentuating the preciousness of the wood” – surrounding a hand motif on a box, tray and vide-poche (from £225), which Yifrach says references “art deco surrealism”.

Some designers, however, advise restraint when using burr. “You don’t want to see too much of it because it can be overkill – it’s like a pattern,” says Ransom. “It looks really good styled next to metal, lacquer, marble or upholstery, but against another wood it can clash,” she adds. The key is to let the burr shine, concludes Lemieux. “With burr you tend to see simpler shapes because the design is actually on the wood’s surface,” she explains. “If you’re going to go to the cost and artistic labour that it takes to do burr veneer properly, it should be the focus.”

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