Stretch­ing the lim­its of wood

An el­e­men­tal ma­te­rial be­ing bent, twisted and lay­ered in new and evoca­tive ways is the medium of the mo­ment

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It’s a pri­mor­dial ma­te­rial, but also ul­tra-con­tem­po­rary and in­creas­ingly cut­ting-edge. Part of the un­mis­tak­able reval­oriza­tion of wood among ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers – a phe­nom­e­non that reached a fever pitch this year and is only go­ing to get hot­ter – has to do with a de­sire to work with al­ter­na­tives to less sus­tain­able sub­stances such as plas­tic. An­other part is the re­sult of higher-tech mould­ing and assem­bly tech­niques that are al­low­ing de­sign­ers to take wood in di­rec­tions un­avail­able to them in the past. Both of these mo­ti­va­tions were on dis­play dur­ing last spring’s Salone del Mo­bile in Milan, where some of the most talked about re­leases in­cluded Mario Bellini’s aptly named Tor­sion ta­ble for Natuzzi (a glass-topped piece sup­ported by half a dozen solid-olive-wood “petals” twisted to form a base) and a new it­er­a­tion of Ro­nan and Er­wan Bouroul­lec’s best­selling Cloud book­case for Cap­pellini (orig­i­nally pro­duced in white poly­eth­yl­ene, the mod­u­lar dou­ble-faced shelv­ing is now avail­able in two wood ver­sions – see Q+A with com­pany founder Gi­ulio Cap­pellini op­po­site). Even Kartell, which is fa­mous for its ground­break­ing plas­tic fur­nish­ings, has been cham­pi­oning wood of late. In Milan, the brand un­veiled its un­am­bigu­ously ti­tled Woody col­lec­tion of seat­ing de­signed by Philippe Starck, who took ad­van­tage of a patented mould­ing process to fash­ion un­com­monly curvy chair backs and stool tops. A sim­i­lar sin­u­ous­ness im­pos­si­ble to achieve with wood only a few years ago can be seen in larg­er­scale ar­chi­tec­tural projects: Re­cent restau­rant de­signs by firms in­clud­ing Toronto’s Par­ti­sans and New York’s New Prac­tice Stu­dio are dis­tin­guished by such fea­tures as ser­pen­tine ceil­ings and room-fill­ing bent-wood screens, while in­sti­tu­tional build­ings like Ky­oto-based Sand­wich’s art pav­il­ion for a mu­seum in Hiroshima put con­tem­po­rary spins on tra­di­tional pro­cesses (the pav­il­ion’s con­toured roof is cov­ered by 340,000 Ja­panese-cy­press shin­gles af­fixed with bam­boo nails, a mod­ern twist on the an­cient Kok­er­abuki roofing tech­nique). For Kartell, the Woody line rep­re­sents a chance to trum­pet the “con­tin­u­ous tech­no­log­i­cal re­search” that went into per­fect­ing a sys­tem that extends the cur­va­ture of wooden fur­ni­ture pan­els. Starck, though, has a more po­etic view of the col­lec­tion. “Woody,” he says, “an­swers a de­sire and also a need for wood,” its lines and tex­tures sat­is­fy­ing “the ba­sic hu­man need to be sur­rounded with signs [of] na­ture.” Ex­pect those de­sires to pro­lif­er­ate as the lim­its of wood ex­pand.

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