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American Red Oak transcends time and generations

Edited By Redazione The Plan - 1 April 2020

For several years now, the design project partnered by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and the London Design Festival has been an opportunity to experiment with the construction and expressive potential of American hardwood.

Legacy, the project of the 2019 edition of the festival, involved ten “commissioners”, major figures on the London cultural scene, and as many world famous or emerging European designers. Their brief: to design an object their “client” wanted to pass on either to their family or to the institution they headed. Craftsmen from the firm Benchmark Furniture produced all the pieces in their Berkshire workshop.

American red oak was selected by AHEC for the project. A highly sustainable timber, red oak grows spontaneously all along the US east coast. Easy to machine, its porosity also makes it easy to stain. “In times like these, the world of design must take responsibility more than ever for what is produced”, says David Venables, Director of AHEC Europe, “and promoting a long lasting and renewable material like timber is a way to do it”. In this sense, American red oak is an extremely appropriate choice, its fast regenerating capacity meaning that more trees grow every year than are harvested.

Legacy also explores the idea of things that last, objects to be passed from one generation to another, which in turn ties in with the concept of longevity and permanence rather than objects produced to meet a passing trend. Exemplars of design excellence and craftsmanship, the very different objects produced also reflect the personalities and everyday life of their commissioners. They also testify to the empathy between client and designer, which resulted in a desire, requirement or wish becoming a physical object.


Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, asked for a table and pair of comfortable chairs for guests and co-workers waiting outside his office before a meeting or work session. Designers from Jasper Morrison Studio took their inspiration from the firm’s Fugu chair, reinterpreting it for this particular use. The new design combines the right height of seat for comfort but also for getting in and out of. For Jasper Morrison, the refined shapes and curves of the Fugu meet the difficult challenge of making a very comfortable chair from a very hard material.


The gradual disappearance of handwriting and allied activities is certainly one of the major changes taking place today. We are witnessing the extinction of many customs linked to writing by hand, for example, the habit of sending postcards to distant friends and relatives. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, has a passion for postcards and has been a collector since he was an adolescent. It seemed only natural therefore to commission - together with curator Rebecca Lewin - Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama of Studiomama to construct a postbox for the Serpentine Gallery. The idea was to induce visitors to send postcards of the works just seen as a way of remembering emotions and sharing them with loved ones.
Produced in two sizes, Serpentine Postbox is immediately recognizable for what it is. The playfully exaggerated lip-shaped opening, made from a separate CNC-machined block, invites passers-by to write and post a message as a way of remembering their visit to the Serpentine Gallery but also of reviving handwriting as a means of interacting with others.


The collaboration between playwright, actor and presenter Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director of the Young Vic, and designer Tomoko Azumi of TNA Design Studio led to an object - a bench - that has to do with its commissioner’s family roots and the epic journeys of his forebears, originally shipped from the African continent to the Caribbean and much later - in the case of the Kwei-Armah family - from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. The bench was designed with the commissioner’s grandson in mind, as a place to sit and one day remember the time spent with his grandfather, the material of the seat encouraging awareness of the passing of time yet the vital energy that continues in the timber. The stream-bent red oak rails of the Au bench recall the hull of a ship. The X in the center of the bench has a twofold reference: the crystal structure of gold, and Malcolm X, whose autobiography had a profound effect on Kwei-Armah as a young man.


Sir Ian Blatchford is Director and Managing Director of the Science Museum Group where he is currently working on a permanent exhibition on the future of agriculture. One of his key concerns is the dwindling bee population. Appropriately, the object he chose was a beehive to be left to the museum and its visitors. Given their shared interest in the natural world, organic materials, and especially the plight of bees, designer Marlène Huissoud and Blatchford were immediately on the same wave length. Huissoud is in fact the daughter of a beekeeper, so bees have always been a part of her life. The object designed - Beehave - makes a clear break with conventional beehives, designed as a miniature houses to optimize honey collection but a far cry from the natural bee habitat. This beehive takes the form of a hollow trunk. Not only a
man-made object, it is especially a life-giving haven for bees. Hand chiseled, the timber was subsequently scorched with a blowtorch and the inner and outer surfaces coated with a dark resinous material produced by bees. The strong smell attracts the bees, encouraging them to colonize the hollow.


Love of books was what inspired the Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona Blazwick, to commission Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay of Raw Edges to make the bookstand named Wooden Hinge for the annual Richard Schlagman Art Book Awards, but also to exhibit the public reference copy of new catalogues. A lover of wood, Blazwick wanted to combine the strong materiality of timber with the tactile quality of books. Wood is also a favorite material of the designers. Their bookstand is a restrained minimalist article totally at the service of the book it holds. The hinges of the folding wooden structure are also in wood, while the book rest is made of canvas textile, a widely used bookbinding material. Iwona Blazwick hopes that the refined sculptural Wooden Hinge will attract interest in the book on display and encourage reading by children and adult visitors to the Gallery, but also in places like public libraries.


Alex Beard, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, wanted a pair of sofas for the room in which he holds most of his meetings, a small comfortable place conducive to concentrating minds. The result was Duo, by Terence Woodgate, its simple geometry a hallmark feature of the designer’s work, the result of subtraction rather than addition. Beard loves the fact that the Royal Opera House has an abundance of timber, and was fascinated by the warm shades of American red oak. The slender elegance of Woodgate’s sofas highlights the curved chamfer detail of the armrests.
The wooden structure is upholstered in tan leather, its warm shade a perfect match for the timber. Duo’s linear forms transcend fashion and Woodgate hopes his sofas will be used for many years to come.


Sir John Sorrell, co-founder and Chairman of the London Design Festival, loves admiring the sunset reflected on the ponds in the grounds of his country cottage near London. With this in mind, he asked Juliet Quintero, Co-founder and Director of
Dallas-Pierce-Quintero, to design a seat among the trees at the edge of the water. The result is Nest, a space for contemplation, named for its resemblance to a bird’s nest surrounded by the foliage of the trees. Developed together with Arup, the three-dimensional openwork structure is made of red oak pieces heat-treated to make them weather resistant. The warm reddish color of the timber surfaces will change with time, as is natural for a “living” material like wood.


Maria Balshaw, Director of the Tate, has a busy daily schedule that often entails changing clothes at the office. She decided to take advantage of the collaboration with designer Max Lamb to commission something that would be a screen, container, mirror, and clothes hanger all rolled into one, without, however, having a clear idea as to how this could be done. In response, Max Lamb came up with Valet, an organic-shaped self-standing structure. The choice of red oak was an opportunity for Lamb to experiment with the timber’s ability to absorb and incorporate colored dyes - in this case a teal blue stain. For her part, Balshaw was astounded at how well the user-friendly, anthropomorphic shaped Valet met all her demands. Far from what she had imagined, it fitted her requirement perfectly.


Like every ballerina, Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, is passionate about music, something she inherited from her parents. A collector of LPs, she had no accessible storage place at home, so she asked Martino Gamper to design some shelves for her collection. As a dancer, Rojo is very familiar with wood, so this project -
Musical Shelf - combines her major interests with her favorite material. Gamper’s modular design allows many shelf configurations. The light colored veneer of the vertical components contrasts effectively with the warm walnut/chestnut shade of the shelves. Not only an attractive design feature, the slanted vertical members make the aligned album covers easy to read.


A love of writing and storytelling was what inspired the object that Amanda Nevill, CEO of the British Film Institute, commissioned from Sebastian Cox. From her first idea of a penholder, the project developed into a desk, chair and penholder called Writer’s Collection. Not for the exclusive use of Nevill, the desk has been placed on a mezzanine overlooking the Box Office and is available to visiting film directors and writers, who can sit and use the material stored in a hidden compartment. In fact, the apparently simple design conceals many interesting features, including a scroll of paper on which to write stories that will remain over time. Sebastian Cox was particularly appreciative of the strength and machinability of American red oak, a species whose aesthetic, technical and sustainability properties should, he believes, be more widely promoted in Europe.



Location: London, UK - Year: 2019 - Promoted by London Design Festival in partnership with American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and Benchmark Furniture

Commissioners: Tristram Hunt, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Ian Blatchford, Iwona Blazwick, Alex Beard, John Sorrell, Maria Balshaw, Tamara Rojo, Amanda Nevill

Designers: Jasper Morrison Studio, Studiomama, Tomoko Azumi, Marlène Huissoud, Raw Edges, Terence Woodgate, Dallas-Pierce-Quintero, Max Lamb, Martino Gamper, Sebastian Cox

Engineering: Arup

Graphic Identity: APFEL

American Red Oak Suppliers: AHC Export Lumber, Bingaman & Son Lumber, Danzer Veneer, Graf Brothers Flooring, Oaks Unlimited, Midwest Hardwood Corporation, Morgan’s Timber, Turman Sawmill

Photography by Petr Krejči, courtesy of American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC)

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