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Ornament or Crime? With Painted Woodwork, There Is No Middle Ground

Unexpected color choices are gaining traction, such as black window trim: “I can remember when that was considered so weird,” Ms. Sloan said. Shabby chic surface treatments, with simulated patina and distress marks, are appearing on woodwork newly subsumed by pastel pigments, and blues and oranges in blazing sheens are being striped on wood side by side.

Karen B. Wolf, an interior designer in Short Hills, N.J., said that for homeowners choosing deeper color ranges, “they don’t feel as badly about painting their woodwork.”

Christophe Pourny, a furniture restorer in Brooklyn, said that his advice for the hesitant is along the lines of “paint it and don’t feel bad.” But be sure the wood is smoothed and well primed beforehand, he added: “Make it a really, really sharp job” rather than “slap up a bit of paint.”

Of course, some stalwarts remain devoted to exposed wood’s warmth, lively variations, sense of authenticity and tree-hugging resonances, whether timbers preserved on medieval ceilings or redwood aglow in early 1900s historic districts. Judith Lief, a real estate broker with Corcoran in Brooklyn, said that at venerable properties with woodwork hidden by paint, potential buyers “more often than not will ask me, ‘Do you think this can be stripped?’”

At museums, evidence has surfaced of the grand historical sweep of the cycles of fashions in painting, stripping, repainting and re-stripping. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, owns a 17th-century British staircase made of oak, pine and elm, now paint free after centuries of coating and recoating, and an 18th-century French room paneled in oak, which was stripped in the 19th century and is resplendent again in its original shades of cream and gold. But only a few important interiors like these, protected by curators unfazed by threats of public shunning or pitchforks, can be kept frozen in testimony to fluctuating cravings for covered wood.

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