The way we live now, by Peter York: Natural philosophy

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The Independent Online

Every time I hear the word "authentic" I reach for my revolver. It's wildly subjective, endlessly arbitrary, designed to show the speaker's a superior person with a moral divining rod that senses inauthenticity, the unreal thing, from a hundred yards. You'd think Post-Modernism and the Trash Aesthetic and all that would put "authentic" and its users under pressure, but no. They re-grouped in seconds.

Eco-ness and Making Poverty History and a variety of good recent initiatives have given the world's instinctive bossy boots a new lease of life and a very big stick to beat the rest of us with. The natural look in design is an obvious proxy for virtue among superior beings. It signals eco-ness, spirituality and can even stretch to Fairtrade at a pinch.

The natural look's been going for ages. I remember from my teens the Primrose Hill houses where thoughtful left-leaning owners had hessian and calico and, most heroically natural of all, early stripped pine. It's miles smarter now: the look has been cross-bred with the Nineties revival of modern architecture. The unacknowledged secret of the new naturalism, like organic food, is that it's much more expensive. "Eco" is now an excuse to build in an entirely different way, using expensive difficult-to-source materials and socially skilled architects for the complete avoidance of sin. Your house could be hewn out of rock and roofed with peat to create a 21st-century cave. It could have solar panels and wind turbines. It could be air-tight to avoid emissions. But it needs to look the part too. At least one room should subliminally suggest a cathedral - high ceilinged and raw-beamed with sustainable wood - to remind us of forms of simple faith.

The natural look translates as white, wheat and wood. It generally avoids bright colour with its implications of vulgar urban falsity. Wheat means everything natural in the calico, unbleached, raw-wool side of life. Things with naturally occurring brown blips. Things that make you think of porridge oats.

And then there's wood. But not just any old wood. You need wood so hefty, grainy and knotted, so split, cracked, weathered and worked, so clearly real, unveneered and unvarnished that it takes you closer to God. Thus, the style is railway sleepers, broad-planked, highly figured larch floors, and immensely heavy occasional tables hewn from solid wood. The log is the high-point of wood fabrication in enlightened circles.

This corner in a Hampstead flat (pictured) says it all. Grey-white poured concrete floors. Rough-sawn untreated wood stairs. A chair apparently constructed from brown string; the obligatory railway-sleeper occasional table; a chair covered in nubbly grey linen. All that's missing is a vase full of twigs.

Architects like poured concrete floors (concrete is now, strangely, an almost natural material)

The rug is so ostentatiously fibrous it's probably got leaves and small birds' nests: you could feed your children with it

Off-white paint - probably made from from lime and flour and disused milk protein which allows walls to breathe - is still the colour of purity

A wooden whittle of a springbok above a log fire - a salute to native peoples across the world

The key 21st-century home eco-accessory: the hefty occasional table made from solid wood