Wood in architecture
Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon and furniture designer / maker Sebastian Cox collaborate to create an elaborate installation out of American hardwood. The Invisible Store of Happiness is a three-metre high ode to wood and craftsmanship. It has taken two of the UK’s brightest talents – furniture designer/maker Sebastian Cox and artist Laura Ellen Bacon – three months to craft the structure out of American hardwood, showcased for Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) in the archway in front of the historic Museum of the Order of St John in London 19-21 May 2015.
This dramatic installation hand-crafted out of American maple and cherry, consists of a mighty steam bent frame that gives way to thinner, weave-able strips manipulated to twist and flow into a whirlpool of texture and shape.
“As a sculptor, I have enjoyed the refinement of form that has been possible with these woods; allowing the curves and stability formed in the head to find their feet in the finished, grounded form,” says Laura Ellen Bacon. “I know this to be a true collaboration: both Sebastian and I have merged our language of form and function, like merging two colours to acquire a new shade.”
She adds: “For my part, I was hoping to find a way to distill the act of making into a solid form of containment, perhaps a little like blending a perfume and pouring it into a vessel. With our use of scale, solidity and precision, we have been able to use the wood as the essence.”
The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has supported the project to allow experimentation with these timbers and to celebrate their potential. Working with Sebastian Cox, one of the UKm oforemost makers, challenges the way wood works in a way nobody else does. And Laura Ellen Bacon, with her artistic sensibility coupled with her wonderful sculptural work in willow wood, is the perfect complement to Sebastian’s approach.
“When we set this project in motion we had no idea quite what we would end up with,” said AHEC’s David Venables. “But we knew one thing for sure, the result would be ambitious, perfectly executed and thought provoking. Our job was to pick the right people, put our trust in them and let the process happen.
Creating is about relationships and every time we do one of these projects, we all learn more about that collaborative process. I think that’s very valuable.”
Sebastian Cox conceived the project and led by his growing passion for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), took it to AHEC as a proposal. Cox is best known for making handmade furniture with sustainable materials from the UK’s woodlands, but his passion for the progressive research AHEC are conducting into LCA led him to Venables. He asked Laura Ellen Bacon, whose poetic willow sculptures he has always admired, to join him for the project.
“The Invisible Store for me has become a store of many things,” he says. “It started out as a store of our shared passion of making, but as the project unfolded it became a store of much more; education, ambition, pride, late nights, steam, experimentation, unknown quantities, passion, cups of tea, swear words, and so on! The whole thing has been the biggest thing we’ve ever undertaken, and we couldn’t have done it without Laura’s creativity, experience and calm nature.”
The maple and cherry have been crafted into an elliptical-shape frame that showcases fine craftsmanship and impeccable cabinetry on a grand scale with huge arcs of steam bent cherry wood, hand jointed together in mostly glue-less draw-bore mortice and tenon joints.
Through complex machinery the components of this solid frame are effectively shredded into strips and made supple and weave-able from time spent soaking in the River Thames beside Sebastian’s Woolwich workshop. These strips were boldly manipulated by hand, flowing and twisting into the space to create a whirlpool of texture and shape, all held within its mighty external frame.
“The biggest challenge has been the sheer number of unknowns, which we broke down week by week using collective thinking and design-grounded problem solving. It was just relentless unanswered questions because of the nature of the piece,” says Sebastian Cox. “Would the steam bending work? Yes, after week three and some new metal straps. Would the spindle moulder survive the constant use? Yes, after week two and a new circuit breaker. Would the mortices tear out as we morticed the arc? Resolved after week four and three jig prototypes. Would the scarf joints be strong enough? Resolved after week five during the build. Would the swathes actually bend? Yes, after discovering a little help from steam in week five. Could we actually fit the thing out of the workshop door? Yes, just before the final photography session on the final day.”
Supported by: AHEC
Architects: Laura Ellen Bacon – Sebastian Cox
Timber: Wheeland Lumber Company, Bingaman & Son Lumber, Cersosimo Lumber, Allegheny Wood Products, Blue Ridge Lumber, J & J Log and Lumber.
Photography: © Petr Krecji