During the interior design process, some clients recoil at the word faux. They turn their noses up, saying, “Why would I want something fake in my home?” Or, their minds jump to the rag-rolled paint jobs that graced their 80s kitchen designs. What these people don’t know is that faux finishes have graced some of the most expensive estates in history, and many of us are still none the wiser! Faux finishes have the power to transform an otherwise uninteresting space, delivering the same feel as materials that are prohibitive to use due to expense, weight, or timeline. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, my team of Austin interior designers and I define and review the benefits of faux finishes and explain how to use them for stunning results.
What are Faux Finishes?
Faux finishes or faux painting describe a range of decorative finish and paint techniques that mimic the appearance of other materials. Faux comes from the French word for “fake.” However, faux finishes should not be underestimated. They require expert craftsmanship and skill to create a finished product nearly indistinguishable from the genuine material it copies. There are faux finish techniques that imitate marble, exotic wood, brick, plaster, metal, carved moldings, and many other materials. While faux finishes help minimize building costs, they can also be used for spaces where the original material may prove structurally prohibitive or jeopardize the timeline. For example, an exotic wood may take too long to ship, or an older home may not be able to support the weight of solid marble columns.
Types of Faux Finishes
There are many different types of faux finishes to consider. Here are some of the most popular options.
Trompe-l’œil means “fool the eye” in French, which is the premise of all faux finish techniques. This realistic painting technique developed in the 13th century relies on forced perspective to create a three-dimensional effect. It can give the illusion of architectural details, such as raised plaster reliefs, moldings, or even faux windows.
Marbleizing transforms an ordinary wall, plaster column, or wood molding into a stunning piece of carved, polished marble. There are many marbleizing techniques used because there are many different stones to mimic. Painters typically add several paint layers and finish the piece with a glaze for a polished appearance.
Faux plaster copies the look of the marble dust and limestone mixture just using paint. This faux finish gives an ordinary sheetrock wall an old-world textured appearance, adding visual interest and warmth to a room.
Exposed brick is a sought-after asset in a home. But, if you don’t have 100-year-old brick hiding behind your sheetrock, don’t worry. The look can be copied with a faux brick finish that mimics brick-and-mortar with a stamp. The final result looks like a real painted brick wall, delivering texture and dimension.
Faux bois or woodgraining mimics the appearance of more expensive woods. The technique was developed as a way for wealthy homeowners to transform locally sourced woods into expensive woods from other regions—which would have blown their budgets and timelines. A wood grain appearance is achieved by layering paints and finishing the product with varnish.
Faux Metal and Patina
Faux metal finishes can transform a lightweight wood detail into a heavy and expensive piece of cast zinc or copper. Patinas can be added to achieve a weathered look, so it feels like the feature has been around for centuries (rather than weeks).
Strié uses brushed glazes and stenciling to mimic the look of fabric, like silk or linen. This method can be used in rooms where actual wall upholstery isn’t practical, like a powder room.
Crackling and Weathering
Crackled and weathered faux finishes give a new piece an aged appearance. These methods are popular in the shabby chic and rustic design styles.
Rag Rolling, Color Washing, and Sponge Painting
When people who grew up in the 80s and 90s think of faux finishes, their minds often jump to rag rolling, color washing, and sponge painting. (If you grew up in the Renaissance era, you’d probably think of marbelizing and trompe-l’œil!) While considered dated by some, these finishes add dimension and texture to a room when properly applied. Color washing creates subtle color variations by blending multiple hues with a paintbrush. Rag rolling and sponge painting use twisted rags or sponges to create designs and textures.
A Brief History of Faux Finishes
Faux painting techniques can be traced back thousands of years to building finishes used in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greek artwork. However, faux finishes really took off during the Renaissance. During the Renaissance Era, Italian painters developed faux finish techniques to add ornamentation to churches. In some cases, artists would receive awards for tricking viewers into thinking their work was the real thing.
Faux finishes remained popular for centuries after the Renaissance, popping up during the 19th century Neoclassical Revival and the 1920s Art Deco movement. At the turn of the century, the middle class relied on faux painting to turn their wooden fireplaces and tables into marble when the real thing was out of reach.
The 1980s and 1990s mark the most recent peak of faux finish popularity. During this time, wallpaper was going out of style, and faux paint finishes stepped up to the plate. While rag rolling and sponge painting have had their time (for now), homeowners are once again embracing other types of faux finishes. Today, people look to add personalization and warmth to their spaces, and faux plaster, brick, and marble finishes are an excellent way to do so.
Benefits of Faux Finishes
My team of Austin interior designers and I agree that these are the top three benefits of using faux finishes in the home.
Add Interest to a Space
Faux finishes are so often thought to be old-fashioned. But, we disagree! When done right, faux finishes can bring life into a space and add interest to a room that would otherwise be void of character.
Adhere to Set Budgets
A good interior design plan not only sticks to the budget but also maximizes it. In some cases, certain materials are too expensive to pull off, but faux finishes can achieve the same look for a fraction of the cost. (Even the old money rich used faux finishes on their estates!) Instead of blowing the budget on real mahogany paneling, use a cheaper pine with a faux bois finish. Your guests will never know, and you can put your budget towards higher-grade furnishings and decor.
Allow for Easy Applications
While a marble-clad wall is beautiful, it can be difficult and costly to install. However, faux finishes can achieve the same look with easy-to-apply paint. For example, a faux painter will be able to match the marble counters in your bathroom and turn the sheetrock walls into a stunning marble-clad feature.
Why are Faux Finishes Trending Again?
In the 2020s, many designers and homeowners are looking to 1980s design trends for inspiration. While sponge painting isn’t coming in style, faux finishes have regained popularity and are trending again. These days, interior designers are taking a subtler approach, using a faux plaster or brick finish to warm up a room and add a layer of cozy texture. Bare-bones design is out, and maximalist details are in!
Are Faux Finishes Right for Your Home?
I hope you’ve learned that faux finishes are not limited to the 80s rag rolling you remember. With the proper application, faux finishes can be the right choice for any design plan, adding variety, texture, and warmth. For example, faux plaster can turn your dining room into an old-world European escape, and a metallic finish can create an ultra-modern feature wall fit for a penthouse. The bottom line—faux is fabulous!
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.