The Many Faces of Metal in Design

For centuries, metal has been popular in architecture and interior design. While metal details such as faucets and drawer pulls have been used for centuries, and embossed tin ceilings gained popularity in the early 20th century as a cost-effective substitute for elaborate plaster ceilings that were seen in Europe, we have recently seen a transformation in the ways in which metal can be used, from wall coverings to surfaces and decoration, such as room dividers or mesh curtains. However, although there are more than 80 types of metals in the world, only a handful are regularly used in design due to their durability, malleability, cost, and aesthetic. The information that follows will explore six metals commonly used in contemporary design.


A cool-toned, silver metal, steel has been an integral part of architecture and interiors since the late 18th century. Most notably, structural steel was used to create increasingly taller buildings in the early 20th century, bringing about the rise of skyscrapers. But steel had been used in smaller ways since the Industrial Revolution, particularly as hardware and stair railings. In the mid-19th century, steel became more popular as columns and used in decorative elements such as lighting. Today, steel is one of the most common metals used. Stainless steel is often associated with clean, fashion-forward appliances, particularly for the kitchen, but different types of steel is used throughout interiors from cladding to furniture, backsplashes and hardware.


A cool-toned, silver metal, chrome consists of chromium and is not an alloy—or a mix of two or more metals. Chrome plating was first developed in 1924 by Fink & Eldridge at Columbia University, and it has increased in popularity, especially from the late 20th century to present. It can be polished to become very shiny or brushed to be more matte. Chrome is most commonly used today as a finish for furniture and surfaces.


A warm-toned, yellow metal, it is thought brass was first used around 500 BC. Throughout history, brass has been used in a myriad of ways, but it gained a new appreciation in home decor in the 1970’s and 80’s. Because brass can be lacquered or shined, ages well, and is easily malleable, it is primarily used in decorative elements and can strike a resemblance to gold. Although brass was supplanted by cooler metals like steel and chrome in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it has again been gaining popularity in interiors for its warmth, ease of use and ubiquitous nature.


A warm-toned, red metal, copper has been used for thousands of years with the oldest copper pendant discovered being dated to around 8700 BC. Lightweight, easily malleable and sustainable due to its ability to be melted down and used again without losing strength, copper is often used in design due to its rich red color. However, copper also has anti-microbial and fungal properties that makes it a good candidate as a surfacing material.


A warm-toned, dark red metal, bronze has been used for thousands of years, most notably with “The Bronze Age” which lasted from 3000-1200 BC. Although it is used in interiors as detailing, bronze resists corrosion and is able to age beautifully, making it ideal for exterior uses in trim and accents. Lightweight and easily malleable, bronze sheets can be easily etched, embossed or cut so it can be widely used as a surfacing material. More recently, bronze has gained traction as a metal for faucets, sinks and other detailing in bathrooms and kitchens as it has a rustic-yet-refined aesthetic.


A cool-toned, gray metal that can be easily colored, aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust that doesn’t contain iron. Incredibly malleable and having a high strength-to-weight ratio, aluminum has been used in design for over a century. However, it is very closely associated with the mid-20th century and postwar period; after WWII, aluminum used for the war efforts began to make its way into homes, and it was beloved as the metal of the future because it was used in getting man to the moon. Today, aluminum is used in a variety of decorative elements, including interior and exterior wall coverings or cladding, furniture, detailing and more.

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