It was all about the number three: three countries of origin, three designers, three types of timber, three days. Three was the name of the American Hardwood Export Council’s exhibition at the 3daysofdesign 2023 festival, held in Copenhagen, June 7–9. Up to its tenth edition, 3daysofdesign is an annual event dedicated to designers, architects, businesses, and design enthusiasts that brings the streets of Copenhagen to life with installations, exhibitions, and events. Against this backdrop, Three combined research into American hardwoods with an exploration of the creativity of a new generation of Scandinavian designers.
The exhibition, presented by AHEC at the Copenhagen Design Agency, featured the creations of three young Nordic talents, while narrating the behind-the-scenes story and the path that led them from conception to completion of each design. A special emphasis was placed on the American hardwood forests where the materials were sourced.
Focused on sustainability, the AHEC works to promote American hardwoods such as red oak, cherry, and maple. It’s stepped up its efforts in this area in the face of the climate crisis and the difficulties faced by global procurement chains – emergencies that are pushing the design chain towards a circular economy and to rethink the entire production process, beginning with the very first phase of choosing a material.
Three highlighted the huge range of applications of these easily sourced and sustainable woods. The three featured works were inspired by both functional design and sculptural art. The trio of all-female designers was made up of Anne Brandhøj from Denmark, Pia Högman from Sweden, and Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng from Norway. They were selected by the AHEC, which assigned them each a particular hardwood to freely explore and create with.
“The brief to each designer-maker was to explore the material they were given to work with and let that process inform the creative outcome in whatever direction they chose. This is a very different approach to that of our previous projects and is a deliberate attempt to make the materials the focus and celebrate a fresh perspective on their potential”.
David Venables, AHEC European director
The three timbers chosen for Three are all commonly found in American hardwood forests, making up 40 percent of the forest volume. Nevertheless, they are all still little used in the design sector. With this sector now needing to overhaul its economies and supply chain, however, it is starting to explore their possibilities. The timbers in question are American red oak, an open-grained flexible wood; American maple, a creamy-white, hard-wearing timber; and American cherry, a timber with a distinctive pink to reddish hue that’s ideal for musical instruments and auditoriums.
Besides being sustainable, these three materials have several characteristics – including color and strength – that make them both versatile and aesthetically pleasing.
Comprising a series of cuboidal consoles with mysterious interiors and smooth, deep chasms that mimic the rings of the designer’s beloved tree trunks, Inner Beauty was created by Anne Brandhøj, a Danish designer known for works that blur the lines between function and sculpture, hybrids with aesthetic and material value that stand apart from usual design objects.
“I became overwhelmed by the idea that I shouldn’t be producing furniture at all, when we already have so much stuff in the world”, says the artist, who, after a crisis moment during her studies at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, shifted her focus towards natural and renewable materials that she could source independently. A visit to a local sawmill led her to choose timber as the raw material for her designs, which she now produces in her Copenhagen workshop.
Brandhøj encourages people to touch her work, to have others experience for themselves the particular sensations she had while working with the material. “To some people, wood is just wood,” she says, “but to me, different types of wood give completely different experiences.” Inner Beauty, made with American cherry for the Three exhibition, has all of this. It’s a design with the ability to surprise and amaze. A functional sculpture or a sculptural piece of furniture to look at, touch, and experience.
Designer Pia Högman from Sweden produced the Cured Series for the Three exhibition. It consists of five matching chairs, each with a different finish to emphasize the open-grained structure of the oak, its veining, and its fascinating range of chromatic nuances. The result is that each chair is unique and unrepeatable. This is precisely what interests the designer: creating objects that people already know but will look at with new eyes. “My goal as a designer is not to simply produce products that anyone could make; it’s more important to me to contribute to something bigger, like giving materials new life”, she says.
Driven by her desire to research and explore, Högman initially became interested in birch bark, which she used to make various small objects, such as bowls, serving platters, furniture, and roofing tiles. “When I find a material that I find interesting, I want to dive into it and see all of the possibilities”, she says. The same creative process led her to investigate the multifaceted possibilities of American red oak, a material that’s often overlooked in favor of white oak. Cured Series offers all this to those with eyes to see it. It’s a journey of discovery involving the visual and tactile power of oak.
From Norway, Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng is a designer of furniture and household items known for the creativity and alternative ideas behind her unusual and fascinating pieces. She’s always spoken her own design language, the result of long walks through the wild, shapeless forest landscapes of Norway, which starkly contrast with the linear geometries in vogue in the world of design. “I was so bored of seeing straight lines everywhere,” she says. “I wanted to make something different”.
And so she has, using American maple, for Three, by exploring the similarities of the timber with Norwegian ash, a material she’s always been familiar with. Beginning with the image of moss slowly covering a rock, the designer created a furniture trio, comprising a bookshelf, footrest, and stool, that combine free-form geometries with linear volumes in celebration of the slow growth of a maple tree and its annual rings.
Øfstedal Eng was surprised to find such a durable hardwood and, for this reason, for the first time she chose more regular than free-form geometries. This is because her process is intuitive, beginning from the material rather than some preliminary idea. “Some people like to sketch on paper, but I prefer to think through my hands”.
Photography by Benjamin Lund, courtesy AHEC