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Forest Tales

Maple, Cherry and Red Oak: A Display of Sustainable Wood

Forest Tales
By Redazione The Plan -
Ahec has participated in the project

An homage to the virtues of wood, the exhibition Forest Tales featuring furniture made from sustainable hardwood was on show at Triennnale Milano during the 2022 FuoriSalone in June. The furniture pieces were selected from the latest projects supported by the exhibition creators, American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). An active promoter of American hardwoods in Europe for over 30 years, AHEC is also one of the first organizations to introduce a Life Cycle Assessment model for its products. Designed and curated by Studio Swine, the exhibition design both tells the story of the forest and provides a global platform for furniture pieces from recent AHEC projects that have yet to reach a world audience, having been conceived and produced during the pandemic years. The show is also a heartfelt call for designers and the furniture production sector to take on board issues of climate change and move away from our throwaway mindset.

L’allestimento della mostra Forest Tales alla Triennale di Milano

The appeal to a new way of thinking is embedded in Studio Swine’s concept by re-purposing the packing crates in which the furniture was shipped to Milan. On entering the room, visitors are confronted with a “mountain” of stacked crates. They form the backdrop but also a series of different level exhibition platforms for the pieces of furniture on display. Putting waste reduction into concrete practice, the installation comes as close as possible to carbon neutrality. It is a fine example of great visual impact achieved with minimal means and a minimal environmental footprint. The concept for the installation also references the opening frames of Orson Welles’ iconic movie, Citizen Kane (1941), in which Kane’s belongings are shown amid a vast jumble of wooden crates, to be assessed and packed away.

Selected from four different AHEC projects and created by both acclaimed and emerging designers, the 22 pieces of furniture on display were made from three types of sustainable wood – maple, cherry and red oak. Although versatile and fast-growing, these American hardwoods are underutilized by the design industry either because they have fallen out of trends or are not well understood. Forest Tales was a plea – or rather a warning – to make more use of these sustainable woods that grow faster than they are harvested. In the words of David Venables, Director of AHEC Europe: “Our goal must be to make more mindful and responsible use of resources without sacrificing products that combine esthetics, durability and practicality”.

L’allestimento della mostra Forest Tales alla Triennale di Milano

The three wood species featured in the exhibition are the link connecting the four projects that provided Studio Swine with the exhibits for their installation: Connected, in which nine world-renowned designers created tables and chairs in response to the isolation imposed by Covid; Discovered: Designers for Tomorrow, that grouped the work of some 20 emerging international designers; Slow Design for Fast Change, a project involving nine young designers from German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland); and A Seat at the Table, a competition co-promoted with Brianza-based solid-wood furniture producers Riva 1920, to select four innovative, environment-friendly table designs by four emerging Italian designers. The winning designs of the first edition of this Italian talent competition were Ilenia Viscardi’s table Alter Ego in American maple; Alessandro Gazzardi’s Morso, a table in cherry that can be built without assembly tools; Federico Degioanni’s Libra, a red oak table inspired by the shape of a dragonfly; and Matteo Benedetti’s Navalia, also made of red oak. From the international scene came Thomas Heatherwick’s ecological desk Stem in maple; Ikare, an expandable shelving system with glue-free joints designed by Taiho Shin; and Maria Bruun’s stackable stools Nordic Pioneer. Also featured were Simon Gehring’s chair Leftover Synthesis, made of production waste from all three wood species featured in the exhibition. Cherry and red oak were combined to make both the table and chair ensemble entitled Humble Administrator’s Chair and Table, designed by Studio Swine, and Ini Archibong’s The Kadamba Gate, inspired by the Giant’s Causeway, a natural rocky outcrop on Northern Ireland’s northeast coast.

L’allestimento della mostra Forest Tales alla Triennale di Milano Tavolo The Kadamba Gate in ciliegio americano, quercia rossa e quercia rossa termicamente modificata, design Ini Archibong 10,12. Il designer con David Venables, Direttore europeo di AHEC

Creations inspired by nature and built by master craftsmen

Interview with Ini Archibong

The Kadamba Gate references the hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway. How did you get the idea of drawing inspiration from this geological formation in Northern Ireland?
I always look to nature for inspiration with the aim of creating something magical and out of the ordinary. When the seed of an idea starts to germinate in my mind, I wait and let it gradually take root. That is how my creative process works. I look out for special places around the world that stimulate my imagination – natural sites that offer a spiritual experience. In this case, I researched rock formations, and when I came across the Giant’s Causeway, I thought it really gave the idea of the earth rising up towards the sky. It is an almost supernatural image, like the way trees in a forest create a connection with the material used in this work: wood.

The exhibition Connected, from which The Kadamba Gate furniture combination is taken, took its cue from the designers’ personal experience during lockdown and the new ways it generated of living and working together remotely, often operating out of makeshift home offices. What was your experience, and how did you transfer that experience into the design of this work?
I wondered what it was like to be connected in 2020 and find yourself isolated in a small town in Switzerland (Ini Archibong lives in Neuchâtel, ed.). I tried to transfer my feelings to a piece of music; then, focusing on certain passages, I arrived at how to translate my sentiments into a design object. During the Covid lockdown working from home period, nature became even more important to me than it had been before. I began to see nature a bit like my new office. As an outdoor table and seating, The Kadamba Gate reflects this; it allows you to escape the confines of the home and reach for the sky. Added to that, the piece is made from reclaimed wood that was treated and assembled to achieve a surprising result. It is just the sort of rebirth we must make after the pandemic.

As well as cherry and red oak you used several other materials for The Kadamba Gate: what significance would you give to this mix?
I always try to combine different materials in unexpected ways, though always keeping in mind the need to meet specific technical and performance requirements. As a piece of outdoor furniture, it had to have a rainwater drain-off system. So, I included removable brass details in the wood structure. As well as a water drainage conduit, these brass pieces also resemble fruit on trees – which leads to the idea of “fruit of the imagination”.

Yours is one of the only piece of colorfully painted furniture in the Forest Tales exhibition, moving away from natural wood shades. What are the reasons behind this choice?
This is also bound up with a conceptual idea: the color green is intended to evoke the leaves of trees. But alongside this, there was also a practical reason: the table top needed a glossy weather-resistant epoxy finish. So, I looked for something special in both colors and materials and took the opportunity to explore new solutions to build a piece of furniture suitable for outdoor use.

Your parents are originally from Nigeria, you grew up in Pasadena, California, and today you live and work in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. How are these different cultures reflected in your creations?
It is impossible for these different cultures not to be part of my work. Everything I create reflects who I am and what makes me, me, even if I do not make a pointed effort to highlight my different life experiences and the different cultures of which they are part. The vibrant hues of The Kadamba Gate are reminiscent of the bright colors typical of Africa that I have always had around me. The shape and finish of the table recall the image of a surfboard and California. Yet again, Nigeria, California, and Switzerland are all places full of trees and greenery.

How do technology and craftsmanship interact in The Kadamba Gate and, more generally, in your work?
There is a synergy between these two elements. The Giant’s Causeway is a formation of natural rocks, from which I extrapolated a geometrical shape based on mathematical rules. At the same time, it is also an organic, sculptural form. I think the meeting point between craftsmanship and technology lies in creating something that draws inspiration from nature. I was born at a time such that technological tools have always been part of my life (Ini Archibong is 39 years old, ed.), so developing a project with a 3D model is just like using pencil and paper. On the other hand, I always work closely with artisans, taking full advantage of their knowledge of materials and how to build with them.

At Forest Tales, David Venables, director of AHEC Europe, called for a “balance in the way we use natural materials with particular emphasis on renewable ones, such as wood”. How do you think this balance can be achieved?
When you work with craftsmen who have a deep understanding of materials, not choosing them just because they are in vogue, there is a much greater likelihood that you yourself will respect the material for what it is and where it comes from, and avoid wastage. For Connected, it was important to focus on the lifecycle of wood. I created a piece of furniture made of many pieces, with no star species or best pieces of wood. That meant I could use all manner of fragments, even bits that would otherwise have been discarded. As a designer I would not have known that was possible had I had not talked at length with the craftsmen. That is always been how I work and it was fundamental to the success of the project.

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