The strong and shiny finish of chrome has made it a popular choice for a wide range of furniture. The lustrous metal plating coats table legs and chair lifts in homes and offices everywhere, but is it starting to fall out of fashion?
Recent trends in interior design and an increasing drive for more environmentally-aware products suggest that chrome may, in fact, be on its way out.
In the context of furniture, the term “chrome” usually refers to a thin layer of electroplated chromium applied to a surface. It is highly durable, extremely hard and has a unique shine that can be a challenge to reproduce. It is also highly resistant to rust – in fact, chromium is what keeps stainless steel (a combination of chromium and steel) from corroding.
Unfortunately, there are some significant hazards to both the environment and human health where the use of chrome is concerned. Elemental chromium can exist in several different “states” which have different properties in terms of how they react with other substances, or how they affect living things. It occurs most commonly as either trivalent chromium (Cr III) or hexavalent chromium (Cr VI). While Chromium (III) is not considered harmful, Chromium (VI) is highly toxic and is classified as an established human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Perhaps surprisingly, it's Chromium (VI) which is most commonly used in the process of applying chrome to a surface. Those who work regularly with chrome plating are particularly at risk of inhaling the toxic compound, and it is essential that they take every precaution to minimise their exposure. Chromium (VI) also has the potential to contaminate supplies of groundwater and drinking water, posing a direct threat to human health and surrounding plant and animal life. This risk of environmental contamination and potential harm to workers, more than anything else, makes chrome a far less appealing choice of material for furniture.
Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives emerging that are quickly gaining popularity in the interior design industry. Polished aluminium is a popular alternative to replicate chrome’s metallic shine with a much lower environmental or health impact. There also appears to be a growing trend toward more natural materials, such as timber, in furniture products, meaning a shift away from cold metal surfaces.
Some furniture manufacturers are definitely noticing a change in buyer preferences. Annette Montagliani of Mark Perry Commercial furniture says her company has seen an increase in demand from architects and specifiers for furniture that does not contain chrome.
“Recently, we completed a fit out that requested no chrome because it was for a Green Star building, so we supplied stainless steel, powder coat and aluminium finishes, as well as recyclable polypropylene,” she said. “There appear to be minimal requests for chrome finishes, but a lot of requests for chairs with timber legs or powder coat finishes.”
Ecolabel organisations commonly include specific criteria for the use of chrome and other heavy metals in furniture products. Since chromium is classified as a heavy metal, any limitations on the amount of heavy metals present in the final product would apply to components with a chrome finish. However, it is important to note that the issues with chrome are mainly due to the hazardous manufacturing processes involved rather than the presence of chromium in the finished product.
With a range of attractive and durable substitutes for chrome available on the market, the increasing prevalence of Green Star projects and the trend toward a more natural look, perhaps we can expect to see less of that strong metallic shine in our furniture. In terms of health and environmental risks, surely that’s a step in the right direction.