Wood and it be lovely (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Shrink-wrapped, disposable design is dead. There’s a huge shift going on in the marketplace for contemporary furniture and the best of it has nothing to do with post-Corbusier chrome tubing or clear and coloured acrylics. It’s in wood – lovely, old-fashioned, ultramodern, timeless wood. And what we’re seeing produced is as radical as any carbon fibre chaise, but in infinitely better taste.

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When SCP, one of the UK’s most innovative high-style furniture manufacturers and retailers unveils its stand this April at the most influential furniture show in the design calendar, the Salone de Mobile in Milan, it will consist entirely of wooden furniture. Designs showcased will be from some of SCP’s most directional names: Russell Pinch, Matthew Hilton, Donna Wilson and Kay + Stemmer. Sheridan Coakley, SCP’s MD, has identified a sudden shift in the market, and taste: ‘Making furniture out of carbon fibre is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t need to survive hitting a wall at 200 miles per hour.’ As for a renaissance in carpentry, he believes that ‘wood has never really been away. It’s the only material you can really restore if it’s damaged, and it has such a long life. People allow it to age and reflect its use and it looks good with the patina that it picks up.’

Certainly one of the reasons that people are engaging with wood again is an appreciation of its longevity. As well as recent financial realities and a new, almost moral disdain for reinventing your interiors seasonally, there is the inherent humanity of wood: scratched resin surfaces cry out for replacement in the minimalist home, but scuffed wood suggests life being lived. There is also a wonderfully naïve quality to it, over and above our nostalgia for it.

It is the green quality that underscores wood’s current popularity. At last year’s 100% Design show in London, one of the most newsworthy stands was run by the Advanced Timber Concepts Research Centre, an incentive by the University of Western Australia bringing together State government and the furniture industry to design, promote and produce high-end, high-style furniture from sustainable timbers. The ATCRC Shimmer Chairs and Shimmer Table – delicate yet sturdy and superbly attractive textural pieces with impeccable eco-credentials – should go on sale sometime this year. In the future, it’s entirely possible that wood production will eclipse pollutant-producing plastics. As Gary Marinko of Advanced Timber Concepts says: ‘There are currently a very large number of forests being planted as “carbon sinks” that will need to be harvested eventually. Conversely, plastics may become less socially acceptable because of their petroleum base.’ Even more emotively, most of us simply don’t want disposable stuff any more. We want the antiques of the future: something to cherish and to pass to future generations; furniture with a soul.

There’s no hint of the antiques market or the vintage auction about the new wave of wood furniture; far from it. When Sebastian Wrong and Richards Woods debuted their WrongWoods collection of sideboard units (from £998) at Wrong’s Established & Sons gallery in London in 2007, the pieces were a bold type exclamation mark announcing a new modernity in wood. Each plywood piece is covered in woodblock print panels in acid bright colours, an exaggeration of the grain of real wood. ‘Extravagant and gestural,’ as Wrong describes it, ‘but based on an extremely basic process of printing.’ The cartoon colours of the pieces are arresting in themselves, but it’s the grain print that is so enchanting – like Warhol’s silkscreens, which stripped down images of Liz Taylor and Marilyn and heightened them again in fluorescents, these are pieces that play on our strong emotional attachment to something visually quite elementary. In this case, it’s the very texture of wood… the knots in the surface are the icons and wood is the star attraction.

The WrongWoods pieces have discreet design pedigree, referencing postwar British G-plan functionality. ‘The carcases of the pieces are plywood as opposed to MDF,’ says Wrong. ‘This was very important because plywood was an important material to fill a void in the postwar years in terms of people needing items for their homes. It was a simple and structural material.’

If 1940s frugality dictated materials and influenced form, it was the subsequent school of Mid Century Modernism which saw designers using wood to create truly radical work. This was the furniture of the future, produced in what many had erroneously perceived to be the material of the past, and it’s this period that’s echoed in 21st century wooden furniture. As Bradley Quinn, author of Mid-Century Modern: Interiors, Furniture, Design Details and Ultra Materials, says: ‘Mid Century craftsmen perfected the art of working with wood, engineering design methodologies and production process to streamline manufacturing and eliminate waste. Few materials surpass the versatility of wood.’

Mid Century Modernism changed the silhouette of wooden furniture and the way we perceived a simple wooden chair. From the Eames brothers to Robin Day and the 1951 Festival of Britain, the new shapes were inspired by aviation, elements of science fiction and notions of a utopian future. The movement was embraced by Lucian Ercolani who showed his work at the 1946 Britain Can Make It expo at the V&A: his curved and flared Butterfly chair still looks fresh today. The company Ercolani founded, Ercol, has consistently produced top quality if often staid wooden furniture since its inception – but it also has a wild side which, since the fashion designer Margaret Howell championed its early archive and started selling its classic range in her flagship London store (including the beautiful beech Butterfly, now back in limited production of around 200 a year at £400 a unit), it has begun to explore again, employing the likes of Matthew Hilton for special projects.

Matthew Hilton has a genius for contemporary wooden design. He approaches his designs as a sculptor as much as furniture designer, ‘finding very odd ways to make chairs… the stranger the way, the newer the form,’ he says. ‘It’s sculpture but the sculpting tools are very limited – you either work in straight lines or circular motions. With my Fin chair (£675) I started out with the idea of splitting a back leg all the way up.’ The work he has been producing for his new eponymous label, Matthew Hilton, displays elements of Scandic and British 50s chic – consider the oval surface, tapered crows-feet legs and heavy walnut grain of his Light Oval Table (£3145). Hilton talks of being inspired by ‘the funny, amateur 1950s modernism that was somehow diluted and softened for England: very domestic and nice.’ Consider it Eames with a pinch of the Ealing comedy if you will – sharp, but rounded with British charm: in a way, the very essence of his client Ercol. Charm aside, Ercol’s quality is superb, as is that of Hilton’s mainline which consists of small-scale-production and beautifully detailed pieces – chairs are made in conjunction with wood-specialists De La Espada in batches of a maximum of 20 at a time, all by hand.

Matthew Hilton and Russell Pinch, Britain’s other key practitioner of modern wood design, are both designing new ranges for Ercol. Hilton’s first chair for them is being produced initially as a luxe edition in walnut with a soft pad (£845); clear lacquer and stacking ply versions will follow. The new chair is an incredibly strong, pure design – the back and seat panel create a stark, angular single-ribbon S-shape when viewed side-on. It’s a future design classic, as are some of the other pieces in the pipeline at Ercol.

Edward Tadros, Ercolani’s grandson, is enthused by the new work that he hopes will build on Ercol’s renaissance: ‘By rekindling the enthusiasm for the Ercol Classics, we’re opening the door for the Hilton and Pinch projects.’ Tadros has some truly wonderful pieces at prototype stages at his ultra modern Buckinghamshire factory with its state of the art  £180,000 five axis CNC computer milling machines, including paneled sideboards and dining tables by Hilton and Pinch which reflect that ‘domestic and nice’ element, but with a vibrant edge and modernity.

As anyone who has searched for the perfect modern chair will know, the 20th century obsession with machine and information age materials has led to a 21st century style hangover of overly fanciful colours, superfluous decoration and peculiar silhouettes – the interiors equivalent of a gilded lily, with bells on. The rehabilitation of wood is changing all that. Although the SCP Classics range, featuring iconic designs by Noguchi, Saarinen, Bertoia and Eileen Gray, hasn’t a single grain of wood in it, the new collection being unveiled in Milan will broaden SCP’s scope widely and promote more organic materials in the contemporary market. ‘Those 20th century classics in the SCP Classics range are still regarded as modern furniture,’ says SCP’s MD Sheridan Coakley, ‘but that perception is changing.’ The Perfect Chair already arguably exists at SCP, and it’s in wood. Russell Pinch’s Avery chair (£200) is a new kind of modern, exactly the sort of pared-down piece the market so sorely lacks. It has lovely straight horizontal and vertical lines, like a child’s drawing of a chair subsequently articulated by perfect proportion and draftsmanship. It’s not afraid of being A Chair; as Sheridan says, ‘It’s visually and physically light.’ It has all the simplicity of Gio Ponti’s Superleggera, updated for today. The Avery just doesn’t have a wrong context – which is incredible. A new version, with almost imperceptible tweaks to make it more comfortable, has been released for 2009.

Russell Pinch is renowned for his work in wood, and his interest in the material began at an early age. ‘My dad made our kitchen table,’ he says, ‘and it holds hundreds of fond memories. Its top was periodically sanded down as its surface was finished, and it’s since been updated with one of my designs, but the original lives on at my sister’s house with another generation eating at it.’ As well as elliptical Harper’s dining tables (£1880-£2265) and a selection of Marlow armoires (£2955-£4485) in different one-colour finishes with a variety of graphic paneling, one of Pinch’s most exciting wood products is his Twig wall panel (POA), which covers an entire surface, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of bisected Ash logs. ‘En masse it creates a soft rhythm that engages without shouting,’ says Pinch. ‘It’s very alluring – when you look at it you want to reach up and touch it.’

The Istanbul-based design firm Autoban create work in wood that is as playful as it is aggressively modern. Much of their seating, with exaggerated curves and leanings, has a touch of the retro-futurist, while their Ladder Bookcase (£1415), which looks as it sounds, is wonderfully smart and functional. All of it has a touch of the childlike, or ‘the beginner’ as one of Autoban’s designers, Oznur Comlek puts it. ‘We started making products in plywood because it was strong, funny and cheap and suited our style. Now we work in oak and walnut. All wood is emotional – natural, renewable and warm, enjoyable to touch and to watch change over time.’ The new, more sophisticated work from Autoban is being produced by Matthew Hilton’s partners, De La Espada, who as well as working with the most dynamic designers internationally are also the go-to company if you’re looking for the Perfect Wooden Desk – their 023 Bureau Desk (£1095) and 009 Console Table (£995) are some of the smartest home office pieces around.

One of Established & Sons’ most exciting editions shows of the year, running at their London gallery until late March 2009, is a showcase of wooden pieces by Seattle artist Roy McMakin. His work takes folk traditions as a starting point but exaggerates and manipulates them – his Kountry Chairs resemble twisted and scaled-up children’s seating. The pattern of pale square patches on his dark 4 Drawer Chest looks, from a distance, like a wood detail blown up on a computer screen to the point of pixellation, but is actually, as Sebastian Wrong explains, ‘the replacement of inconsistencies with good material and aligned wood grain… there is incredible detail in the pieces.’ McMakin’s furniture has the heft and presence of fine art objects: his slat-back ebonized chairs make as much of a statement for a dining room as a Bridget Riley above the fireplace, and priced at £4,000-£40,000 they represent serious investment. McMakin works in Douglas fir, the most graphic of woods. It’s bold and strong, not a clean or apologetic wood or an IKEA laminate. These are pieces that, as with all quality wooden furniture, can only look more beautiful as they weather. Of course, anything carefully chosen should look better with age. It’s just unfortunate that an occasionally puerile single mindedness within modern design caused us to doubt that reality for so long.

Advanced Timber Concepts Research Centre, The University of Western Australia, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts, M433, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009; +61 8 6488 1560; www.atcwa.org

Autoban, from De La Espada; www.autoban-delaespada.com

De La Espada, Clerkenwell Workshops, 31 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0AT; 0207 096 1154; www.delaespada.com

Established and Sons, 2-3 Duke Street St James’s, London, SW1Y 6BJ; 0207 968 2040; www.establishedandsons.com

Ercol, Summerleys Road, Princes Risborough, Bucks HP27 9PZ; 01844 271 800; www.ercol.com

Matthew Hilton, from De La Espada; www.matthewhilton.com

Margaret Howell, 34 Wigmore Street, London W1U 2RS; 0207 009 9006; www.margarethowell.co.uk

Russell Pinch, 6 Horsford Road, London SW2 5BN; 0207 501 9252; www.pinchdesign.com

SCP, 135-139 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3BX; 0207 739 1869; www.scp.co.uk

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