In response to the need to change our behavior in the pandemic, the AHEC asked three leading Emirati designers to come up with versatile public seating made from American hardwood.
In 2020, the powerful oxymoron “social distancing” began to dominate the way we live and the decisions we make. Although fundamental in the fight against the spread of the virus, it’s forced us to behave in ways that go against our nature as social beings.
In response, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) invited three leading Emirati designers – Aljoud Lootah, Khalid Shafar, Hamad Khoory – and their teams to design and develop a wooden bench for use in outdoor public spaces. According to the brief, the bench had to be designed in such a way that users are forced to socially distance, without the need for warning signs. The aim is to help people simply sit down and relax, without having to worry about being too close to the person next to them. The design of the bench, however, also had to allow for the seating arrangement to be changed so that more people could sit closer together once the pandemic is over.
Please Sit Here draws its inspiration from the AHEC’s many and ambitious collaborations to date in the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Europe, Australia, and South Africa. Involving multiple design teams, imaginative briefs, innovative designs, and the finest woodworking skills, these projects have celebrated the beauty, performance, and sustainability of American hardwoods.
The three designers were offered a choice of two American hardwood species: hard maple and red oak. Together, these two species account for nearly 25% of the hardwood forests on the east coast of the United States, one of the largest and most sustainable hardwood resources in the world.
So that they could be used outdoors, the maple and oak were thermally modified after normal kiln drying. Thermally modified timber (TMT) is ideal for outdoor applications, since it has greater durability and dimensional stability. Thermally modified American hardwoods are suitable for a range of applications besides outdoor furniture, including cladding, decking, and shade structures.
Although this material isn’t widely used in the Middle East at present, it has a lot to offer as a natural, environmentally friendly alternative to many other wood and non-wood products. In fact, based on the volume data for the materials used to make the three benches (collected by United Arab Emirates–based manufacturers Urban Studio and Alfa Interiors & Furniture), the AHEC has calculated that all the maple and oak used can be replaced in US hardwood forests through natural regeneration in just 5.8 seconds.
Jalees, the name of Aljoud Lootah’s project in thermally modified American red oak, is an Arabic word that means both “seated securely” and “table companion.” The design is a tribute to the primitive characteristics of the outdoor benches found in every home in the United Arab Emirates. The essential vertical and horizontal members of these benches inspired the minimalist design of this outdoor bench in a modern, appealing reinterpretation. The design has round seats with metal inserts that run along the length of the bench to create social distancing between strangers, when needed, while also bringing together families. Additional seats can be added or removed from the bench as needed.
Khalid Shafar designed Pop Up in hard maple with red oak detailing, drawing inspiration from the 1980s, which, he believes, offered humanity the hope of achieving the impossible. Linear neon lights, advertising, the energy of music, eye-catching fashion colors, and retro cyber-tech all inspired the design of the Pop Up smart outdoor bench. By capturing the vibrant mood of the 1980s, the design conveys the optimism and strength we need to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and set our sights on a brighter, stronger future.
Inspired by traditional Majlis (a term used for parliament in the Islamic world but also meaning a private lounge), with its intrinsic values of humility, equality, and community, the Wahda Bench by Hamad Khoory expresses both connection and separation. Using thermally modified hard maple, the project comprises modular seat, tree, planter, and hand sanitization station units. The modules are arranged around a comb-shaped base, fitting together to form many possible configurations. The bench is therefore an expression of both community and disunity, with its modules able to be pushed back or forth, depending on social distancing measures.
Roderick Wiles, regional director of AHEC, comments, “It is a delight to see the different approaches that all three designers took with this topical brief. Aljoud, Hamad, and Khalid clearly enjoyed this challenge, and their designs are innovative, playful, practical, and beautiful. The attention to detail on the benches is high and the craftsmanship excellent, which serves to highlight the beauty of the thermally modified American maple and red oak used.”
Photography: Natalee Cocks
courtesy of AHEC