2022 Millwork Moves

Marshall Erb Design shares the millwork trends and innovations that are shaping this year’s most sophisticated homes.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

For his personal home in the Gold Coast, Marshall Erb opted to keep the prewar-style millwork in the living room. To give it an update, however, he plastered the entire wall with an ultra-matte white primer.

Marshall Erb has a saying: ‘God is in the details.’ When pressed to be more specific, he’s likely to dive into a lengthy discourse on millwork. “Quality millwork is the difference between a good project and a great project,” says Erb, founder and lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “And all respected interior designers will tell you the same.”

Just so there’s no confusion (for those of us without a masters in design, that is), let’s take a minute to clearly establish what millwork is… Underneath the umbrella of carpentry, which refers to a broad spectrum of woodworking, there are two categories that share similarities, but also important differences: millwork and casework. “In a construction budget,  ‘carpentry’ is used as a catch-all for woodworking,” informs Erb. “The term is not defined as specifically as ‘millwork’ or ‘casework.’ Keep in mind that in any given construction budget, you will very likely have all three categories: carpentry, millwork and casework.”

Millwork is any type of woodwork or building product that is produced in a mill. This could include anything from doors, molding, trim, flooring, wall paneling, crown moldings, etc. However, millwork does not include flooring, ceilings or siding. The real difference between millwork and casework is that millwork is custom made. It will include any type of custom woodworking pieces such as cabinets shelving, custom storage, even elevator surrounds fall into millwork, because this work has to be customized for the specific space. “To be considered millwork, the finished product must be built into the space,” says Erb. “Otherwise, it would be considered furniture.”

One of 2022’s most in-demand features is eye-catching millwork. (Design: Carrier & Co. / Photo: Sam Frost for AD)

When the topic of conversation is cutting-edge millwork, Erb has another saying that’s bound to come up: ‘Simplicity is never simple.’ Now read that again—and think about it for a moment. “When it comes to millwork on the whole, you’re either all in or you should exercise restraint,” says Erb. “Anything in between and you get that ranch-style molding from the ’80s that looks really dated.” For modern homes where less is more, Marshall Erb Design provides a simple millwork package that includes door and window casings. “For modern homes, we delete the crown molding,” says Erb. “But perhaps we do a drywall reveal [where the drywall and baseboards are flush but with a little gap] to create an architectural relief. That shadow line gives you a space-defining visual. It’s a clean look, yet precise and polished. What a lot of people don’t get is that ‘modern’ requires a lot of time-consuming, technical aspects to look that simple.”

Apparently drywall reveals are really trending. “Ten years ago, the M.O. was to insert LED lighting into the reveals to uplight the walls,” says Erb. “Now we’re integrating micro-lighting systems right into the baseboards. These subtle nuances are actually very complicated to build, which is one of the reasons I have so much respect for talented millworkers.” Another top-of-mind millwork trend, according to Erb, is to paint the crown molding, wainscoting and baseboards all one color. “Traditionally, the millwork is one color and the walls are another,” says Erb. “But when you paint everything out the same color, you get a visual continuity that allows every detail to be enhanced by light and shadow.”

While this Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia, kitchen’s panoramic ocean view indeed steals the show, it’s the masterful millwork details that have interior designers giving the space a closer look. (Design: Alexander Gorlin Architects / Photo: Pieter Estersohn for AD)

Not that there’s anything wrong with keeping things traditional, assures Erb. “When it comes to updating a traditional home, your millwork choices will go a long way toward meeting today’s style standards,” says Erb. “For example, we are currently working on a Victorian home in Wicker Park where the client wants more of an open floor plan, so we are collaborating with an architectural team on a seamless millwork scheme that will run throughout the entire project. Everything on the exterior is an updated and enhanced version of its vintage detailing and character. Inside, however, we are changing the profiles to match a more contemporary furniture plan by modernizing the millwork, including a custom, free-floating spiral staircase and sleek wall paneling. It’s all about creating a balance between the old and the new.”

A trick of the trade that separates your run-of-the-mill (pun intended) millworkers from skilled artisans is the ability to blur the lines between custom millwork and prefab cabinetry. “This skill is really put to the test in the kitchen where luxe cabinetry packages and appliance suites need to be configured and expanded upon with, say, a custom island with drawers or a walk-in pantry,” says Erb. “The key is to work closely with a millworker who understands that each element, room by room, is informing the next. The builtins in the library should be informing the millwork moves in the kitchen and so on. And being able to integrate the latest tech—heated drawers for towels, in-drawer plugs for hairdryers and phone chargers, for example—is a must when we’re vetting the millworkers we work with.”