Top cultural leaders collaborate with designers to create a ‘legacy’ in American red oak

AHEC’s message of sustainability at London Design Festival

Legacy, a collaboration between the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and some of London’s top cultural institutions, conveyed the message of sustainability in multiple ways at the recently concluded London Design Festival (LDF), which ran from September 14 – 22, 2019.

According to AHEC, in the face of global environmental challenges, any new objects we create should be designed with the intention to last and to be passed on through generations – whether to family or to an institution.

The project was spearheaded by David Venables, AHEC’s European Director, and Benchmark Furniture whose Berkshire workshop made all of the pieces over the summer.

In May of this year, Sir John Sorrell CBE, Chairman of London Design Festival, invited leaders of London’s cultural institutions to collaborate with some of Europe’s most exciting designers to create a ‘legacy’ piece of design – an object of personal or professional relevance that they would like to pass on to a family member or the institution they lead.

The pieces – ten in total – were all crafted using American red oak.

Nine of these beautiful and thought-provoking collaborations were on show in the Sculpture Gallery of the Victoria & Albert Museum, with one piece on display outside the Natural History Museum on Exhibition Road, for the duration of LDF.

“The pieces celebrate an abundant species of hardwood, American red oak, which is an expanding resource in North America, and regenerates naturally in vast amounts. In fact, red oak makes up nearly one fifth of all hardwood volume in the American forest and even when harvesting is taken into account, the volume is increasing every year by over 21 million cubic meters – equivalent to five Wembley stadiums,” said Roderick Wiles, AHEC Regional Director.

“Wood is renewable and easily recycled. It is low impact and a carbon store – each cubic meter of red oak keeps more than one tonne of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for as long as the product is in use.

“Legacy aims to showcase what this timber is capable of and just how versatile and beautiful it can be.”

Designer Max Lamb was commissioned by Dr Maria Balshaw CBE, Director of Tate, to create a multi-functional dressing screen. Balshaw is regularly running between meetings and events, getting changed in the office, but without anywhere to store her clothes and make-up. Unable to articulate what she needed, Balshaw asked Lamb to create ‘a hanging-mirror-screen-storage-help-me-get-change-unit’ and the idea of Valet was born.

Lamb wanted the piece to be free-standing with a natural and soft form and to incorporate colour. He exploited the porosity of the red oak by pushing a teal blue dye into its surface. The components of the dressing screen slot together, like a piece of flat-pack furniture, without the need for hinges or extra pieces.

Alex Beard CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House collaborated with designer Terence Woodgate to create two sofas, named Duo, which would feature in the room where Beard holds most of his meetings at the ROH.

A CNC router was used to create the components of the sofa. The red oak was given a curved chamfer detail with hidden metal rods to ensure the sofa is robust despite its lightweight appearance.

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, commissioned Marlène Huissoud to create a beehive to feature in a new permanent gallery on the future of agriculture in the Science Museum.

Beehave was handcrafted to create the desired shape and the red oak was then blackened using a scorching technique. Huissoud and her team spent over 100 hours in Paris adding the tactile engraving details to the surface of the beehive using a pyrograph.

Iwona Blazwick OBE, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, commissioned Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay of Raw Edges to create a bookstand. Books are of great importance to Blazwick, as well as to the Whitechapel gallery. The bookshelf, named Wooden Hinge, will be used to award the gallery’s annual Richard Schlagman Art Book Awards and house new library catalogues.

Blazwick also hopes the bookstand will invite young students and children who visit the gallery to explore the books on offer.

The bookstand folds and has been machined with red oak hinges, rather than metal hinges.

Dr Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was paired with the Jasper Morrison Studio. Hunt commissioned a set of two chairs and a table, the collection is called Fugu, for the Directorate Office at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The curves and shape of the chair are a result of addressing the need for a comfortable chair made from a hard material. The details of the pieces were shaped using a woodturner, CNC cut to create a curve and then finished by hand.

The large, untouched surface areas of the table-top and chairs showcase the strong grain of the red oak.

Designer Tomoko Azumi of TNA Design Studio was paired with commissioner Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE, Artistic Director of the Young Vic.

Kwei-Armah wanted to create something for his garden that he could pass on to his grandson. Kwei-Armah also told Azumi that wood made him think of outdoor furniture in the Caribbean, of the slave ships that brought his ancestors from Africa to the Caribbean and the colonial ship that brought his parents to the UK.

In response, Azumi created Au by using thin slats of American red oak, steam-bent into shape, to create a boat structure.

Designer Sebastian Cox was commissioned by Amanda Nevil CBE, CEO of the British Film Institute to create a pen holder, a desk and a chair. Nevil wanted a piece that represents her love of writing and storytelling, something that is important to her personally as well as to her work at the British Film Institute.

The angled curve of Writer’s Collection matches up with the perspective lines on the BFI mezzanine where this piece will reside. The chair is on the same line of projection.

The discreet leather panels on the desktop can be removed to reveal a special compartment for the pen case and a paper scroll for the desk user to sign.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, was paired with Jack Mama and Nina Tolstrup of Studiomama to create a large and a small iteration of a postbox for the Serpentine Gallery.

Obrist believes in the important role postcards play in contemporary art and the revival of penmanship in the digital age. Obrist often asks artists, poets and architects he meets to write or sketch something on a postcard; he then posts it on his Instagram account, working to start a movement to save handwriting.

The postboxes have fluting detail on the exterior, created with a spindle moulder on individual pieces of red oak which were then glued together. The mouth was created from a CNC-cut block of red oak.

Tamara Rojo CBE, Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, was paired with Martino Gamper. Rojo wanted a piece that reflected her life-long love of music and, practically, would work as a space to house her extensive vinyl collection.

Gamper used a combination of fumed red oak to create the horizontal shelves and a lighter veneer on the upright components to create an angled grain direction, a subtle detail which reflects the oblique design of the piece.

Sir John Sorrell CBE, Chairman of London Design Festival, commissioned Juliet Quintero of Dallas-Pierce-Quintero, to create a lookout seat for the garden of his country home. The seat is shaped like a bird’s nest and will be placed next to one of the ponds facing the sunset, creating a space for contemplation and reflection.

The planks of red oak were thermally modified to make the piece more durable for outdoor use and the piece was structurally engineered by Arup.

“Legacy has generated powerful messaging around the sustainability of the U.S. hardwood resource, and the aesthetic and manufacturing potential of red oak in particular.

“But there’s more to it than that. Legacy is a part, albeit a key one, of a wider, longer term programme. The aim is to demonstrate red oak’s technical performance through hard data- generating testing and, backed by this, to flag up its creative and commercial possibilities.

“Combined with studies and tools commissioned and developed by AHEC, demonstrating the legality and wider environmental credentials of U.S.hardwoods, it creates a fund of specification information for red oak arguably unmatched in any hardwood species,” concluded Wiles.


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