AHEC promotes environmental credentials at LDF
The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), in collaboration with product design students at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, exhibited chairs during the London Design Festival (LDF) in September. The exhibition titled ‘Out of the Woods’ was part of AHEC’s continuing commitment to educate, increase awareness and promote the environmental credentials of American hardwoods.
Under the leadership of tutors Sebastian Wrong and Harry Richardson, the students were set the challenge to design a functional chair or seat in an American hardwood of their choice. In an exclusive with MEI, AHEC shares the design concept of the chairs.
Timber used: ASH
Designer: PETTER THORNE
As the name suggest, the defining characteristic of Beeeeeench is its length, coupled with extreme lightness. Spanning 3.5m (and it could even have been longer), and with removable legs, it is made up of slender strips of wood just 5mm thick, which work in three dimensions to build up a beam structure. The vertical slats are 75mm wide, and those forming the horizontal seating surface are just 50mm wide. Separate legs can be bolted on, and removed for transport. He chose to use ash because of its high strength and flexibility.
This design is extremely economical in its use of materials and, because the legs can be removed for transport, would pack into a small space. The question mark is over its durability, which could limit its lifespan.
Timber used: SAPGUM
Designer: MICHAEL WARREN
Warren set out to design the chair with the lowest possible environmental impact, using a minimal quantity of materials in thin sections, since he was very impressed by the fact that additional carbon dioxide was generated by kiln-drying thicker sections. He therefore designed a stool that could be cut out from a piece of timber measuring 25 by 145mm by 1.6m long.
The simple connections developed from much larger scale joints that Warren had studied on green timber building frames, and which he was interested in applying on a smaller scale. Because of his desire to minimise the environmental footprint, he was very ‘purist’ for instance eschewing steam bending to create a curve, instead using two laminations glued together. He also rejected accepted wisdom that no elements should be less than 20mm thick, paring them down to just 18mm. He made several stools during his week at Benchmark, including one in sapgum, a very lightweight timber, resulting in a featherweight version of his already light stool.
Timber used: CHERRY, AMERICAN WHITE OAK
Designers: BOBBY PETERSEN AND THOMAS GOTTELIER
The duo wanted to create an experience rather than just a seat, and they have done this by designing a boat that will carry a single passenger in comfort on a pre-determined journey punched into an iPhone that will then drive the propulsion system.
There is no rudder, simply a small motor set to either side of the boat. Putting one motor on and the other off will drive the course. The idea evolved from a coracle-like form, which has too great a tendency to spin, into a more conventional boat shape. Boat-builder Will Reed spent the week at Benchmark to assist with the making. The boat has been built in marine ply, veneered in American cherry, which was chosen both for its high strength-to-weight ratio and for its color, which will darken in sunlight. The keel is in American white oak, which is both durable and heavy - a desirable property for a keel. At 2.4m long and 950mm wide, the boat is small but quite large enough to offer a haven in which to drift meditatively across the water. The boat evidently used a greater volume of materials than most of the other solutions.
Timber used: ASH AND WALNUT
Designer: NORIE MATSUMOTO
This design was intended to be a beautiful timber object that could also work as a chair rather than the reverse approach, which is more common. Matsumoto was particularly interested in how it looked when it was folded up and leaning against a wall. From this she developed an asymmetric design, which unfolds in a surprising but elegant manner.
She made a prototype of the chair, which was all in ash, but chose to use a mixture of ash and walnut in the final piece, to further point up its asymmetric nature. There were challenges in the design and a lot to be learnt in the making process but, despite the fact that this chair has an unconventional starting point, this is a desirable and ‘sittable’ piece of furniture, which one could imagine working well in a number of different environments.
The chair has been designed for a long life, with carefully considered joints, which can, if necessary, be repaired. Matsumoto was interested in wasting as little material as possible, and has minimised the amount of working needed by using square sections and rectangular elements.
Timber used: RED OAK, ALDER, HARD MAPLE, WHITE OAK, WALNUT, BLACK CHERRY, SOFT MAPLE, HICKORY, PECAN
Designer: LAUREN DAVIES
Davies’ interest in food and cooking led her to design a chair that could be described in the form of a recipe, made up from a variety of woods, some of which are nutbearing species. The seat, made by Windsor chair specialist Sitting Firm and subsequently shaped by Davies, is ‘pickled’ with vinegar, the legs are ‘smoked’ and the spindles of the back are ‘flavored’ with fruit essences.
The whole design is based on the form of a kitchen chair with the seat built up from offcuts of numerous timbers. The legs are of hickory, chosen because of its strength and straightness, and also because this use suits the fact that it is only available in relatively small widths. The ‘H’ structure joining the legs is in the related timber, pecan. Maple was used for the spindles, and the hoop of the back is in straight-grained cherry. The flavorings, which supply color, include saffron, paprika, blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, beetroot, blackberry, pomegranate and onion skins.
Using offcuts to build up the seat means that the chair is employing ‘free’ waste materials, although there is some trade-off in terms of the glue needed to join the elements together. All treatments are entirely natural, from the vinegar, which brings out the natural tannins, to the fruit and spice flavors. Some of these may prove to be fugitive in light - Davies was eager to carry out more tests. The form of the chair is classic, and this sturdy object should have a long and - dare we say - fruitful existence.
Timber used: ASH
Designer: SANTI GUERRERO FONT
This slender chair, with glued joints, reflects Font’s interest in Danish style, which typically showcases construction techniques. ‘I wanted to work with something visually very simple and honest,’ he explained, ‘and to hide the complexity of the issues involved.’ You can see where the legs pass through the structure, and where their ends become flush with the seat.
During the development of the design, Font managed to slim down the thickness of the timber from 20mm to 12mm. ‘I realised that the complexity of the chair lay in making the jigs,’ he explained. By choosing ash, one of the strongest timbers, Font has managed to slim down his initial design, and so use less wood. Since most of the effort involved was in making jigs that could create the simple-looking but difficult joints, this would be a relatively straightforward chair to make. The jigs would be reusable, and the making of repeated chairs would involve relatively small amounts of energy.
Phyllida travelling bench
Timber used: TULIPWOOD
Designers: NICHOLAS GARDNER AND DAVID HORAN
Named after the sculptor Phyllida Barlow, this piece was inspired by one of her works, in which she uses a single screw to fix a piece of MDF and create volume. The design also wraps a thin material to create not just volume but also a surprising amount of strength. Pieces of ply just 1.5mm thick are rolled up to create the legs of a 2m-long bench in solid tulipwood. The legs fit in to tulipwood base rings, and to a circular groove in the underside of the bench. When the bench is to be carried, the ‘legs’ unroll to become flat, and the base rings slot in to another set of grooves in the underside of the bench. The whole assembly is held together with cords, which when the bench is assembled join the rings to hooks on the underneath of the flat bench. Tulipwood was chosen for its high strength and light weight. It is also a material that can easily take stains or be painted.
Timber used: CHERRY
Designer: MARY ARGYROU
Based on the chairs that are used in Cypriot churches, Argyrou’s design is a deliberately solid design that both gives the occupant a sense of permanence and defines its position in space. In this sense it gives them a sense of privacy even thought they are among other. Made in cherry, it has solid sides that use the full two-inch (5cm) thickness of the wood, with a hinged fold-down seat between them. Four turned-wood posts rise from the corners, joined by narrower turned members to create a back and armrests.
The design of this chair requires the use of a relatively large volume of wood, and while it would be possible to reduce the quantity of timber, this would contravene its aesthetic purpose. It is intended to be weighty and durable. In sustainability terms, the durability is an important factor. It is robust and will not fall out of fashion. With no delicate parts that could fail, it should ensure a long lifespan in this form for the timber that it embodies.
Timber used: HICKORY
Designer: NIC WALLENBERG
The idea behind this chair is to create asymmetrically positioned slots set within the thickness of the timber in each of the axes. Under the load of a seated person, these joints will bend, becoming concave on the side of the thinner person. In this way, the seat and back can flex into an ergonomic shape that is comfortable for sitting, allowing straight pieces of timber could be used that would create curves in operation.
The chair contains just five bolts. Although the idea is simple, making it is less straightforward, as selection of timbers is vital to ensure that the grain runs straight in the areas where the slots are placed. The squeeze chair was made in hickory.
This approach reduces the number of operations needed to make a comfortable chair, such as steam bending. Its dependency on very accurate grain selection does however mean that a lot of material will be rejected – not a problem if other uses can be found for it. Intended to be made with mortice and tenon joints connecting the elements, the chair should have a long lifespan.
Timber used: ASH, CHERRY, WALNUT
Designer: SAM WELLER
Weller’s design uses string under tension to hold together the elements. He was inspired by a sculpture that he saw in Arnhem, the Netherlands and developed it for a three-legged stool in which the timber elements are held in position by a special kind of string that is fixed to be under tension. Following advice from Sean Sutcliffe at Benchmark, Weller used a marine rigging called Dyneema, which does not creep (stretch under continued loading). The rigging is tightened with a bottle screw.
The rigging makes the appearance complex, and so Weller deliberately kept the other elements as simple as possible - a disk for the seat of the stool, and circular legs with rounded ends that are deliberately evocative of broomsticks. It is possible to disassemble and reassemble the stools, although doing this presents a daunting intellectual puzzle. Manufacturing processes for the stool are simple, so that the energy that goes into making it is kept to a minimum.
Timber used: CHERRY
Designer: ANTON ALVAREZ
The concept for this seat was that it should be carved simply from a tree cut down and left on the forest floor where it had been cut - an idea that had to be adapted slightly since he was working with American hardwood in England. He did carve his bench from a single untreated log of American cherry. One of the things Alvarez particularly likes about the timber is that it is one of the few that becomes darker with time, rather than fading.
His aim was to achieve simplicity and he created his bench with just three cuts. One end of the bench remains as uncut wood, with the bark still on.
There is evidently a considerable amount of timber wasted in cutting out a triangular section, although it is not immediately possible to compare it to the losses associated with using sawn hardwood. And the offcuts would rot on the forest floor eventually, providing food for the next generation of trees.
Of more concern perhaps is durability. This unseasoned timber will dry and crack quite dramatically but Alvarez is happy to accept the cracks as part of the ‘natural’ aesthetic. And of course, at the end of its life, the bench, like the offcuts, will decay on the ground and give up its nutrients to the soil.
Timber used: ASH
Designers: MARJAN VAN AUBEL AND JAMES SHAW
The starting point for the design of this chair was the fact that, even in a well-run factory, between 50 and 80 per cent of the timber becomes waste. They therefore looked at ways of incorporating the lowest form of timber, the shavings, into the design of the chair.
Following extensive testing, they came up with a combination of a bio-resin, water, and shavings of a mixture of lengths that created a kind of controlled explosion. The resin, mixed with a color, forms a porridge-like mass, which can be moulded against an existing classic polypropylene chair to create a seat form and is fixed to simple but elegant legs of turned ash – a deliberate contrast to the exuberance of the seat.
The idea of using waste materials within the body of a chair is appealing, although the need to select the materials carefully would limit the amount that could be used. Shavings from different timbers give different effects - for instance, cherry shavings impart a definite reddish hue.