Forest as Idea Generator

Disegno #06 (2014)

Image by Amira Fritz.

A. A. Milne’s second Winnie the Pooh book, The House at Pooh Corner, begins with a contradiction. It would start with an introduction, Milne says, but he did that in the first book, so what’s left to say? Instead, he offers the opposite. The introduction becomes a conclusion and Pooh says goodbye before he’s even said hello. “But it isn’t really Good-bye,” Milne reassures us, “because the Forest will always be there…"

It’s a somewhat mystical opening, especially for a children’s story, yet one that captures something of the allure of forests. They recur throughout art and literature, but seldom as straightforward
settings. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, they’re a degenerative force that lets inherent
 vice run wild, while in Rousseau’s Émile they’re an early schoolyard for civilisation. The forests of Max Ernst are abstracted and foreboding, whereas Constable and Turner painted them as romantic idylls. A forest is rarely just a forest, and this quality of otherness accounts for their cultural cachet. “It is not only in the Modern Imagination that forests cast their shadow of primeval antiquity,” wrote Robert Pogue Harrison in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, “from the beginning they appeared to our ancestors as archaic, as antecedent to the human world.”

For many, such a pull has been difficult to resist, and we are accustomed to the forest as a muse for
 art. However, while woodlands have been eulogised by writers, painters and filmmakers, theircreative influence is uneven. Designers, especially in the 20th century, have been largely unswayed. Although the design industry has always made heavy use of wood, its engagement with woods has been infrequent. The forest has been seen as a material resource and little else.

Yet a generation of young designers is now emerging who look to the forest for inspiration. From established studios such as Formafantasma and Peter Marigold, through to more recent graduates such as Pippa Murray and Studio Swine, the forest has become a prevalent theme in design. To some, it provides material engagement on a grand scale; an ecosystem that offers not only wood, but which also proposes new treatments for that material. For others, the organic growth of forests symbolises progressive forms of manufacture that move away from the rigidity of industry and towards more spontaneous modes of production. Perhaps most strikingly, some studios have taken the forest to be a valid subject for design – a problem to be solved, rather than an inspiration in solving others. Designers are becoming attuned to the forest’s otherness.

Design’s traditional view of the forest was as a material store and this attitude abides; wood remains most designers’ introduction to their subject. “In design there is always a link to wood and one of the reasons is that it’s easy to work with,” says Augustin Scott de Martinville, a member of Big-Game and former head of the MA Product Design course at ECAL. “It’s an entry point to design that’s not linked to fashion. It’s always around.”

Use of wood, however, is more complicated and varied than this introductory role suggests. There are softwoods and hardwoods; solid woods, greenwoods and processed products; laminates, chipboards, precision-cut planks and veneers; and you can steam it, saw it, carve it, turn it, mill it or mulch it. “But it’s surprising how many designers and architects we speak to who say, ‘Wood is an amazing material, we use it so much in our practice,’” says David Venables, the European director of the American Hardwood Export Council. “’Well, what sort do you use?’ You usually get a pause. ‘Wood.’”

Throughout the 20th century, one of wood’s predominant uses was as plywood, a quasi-manmade material that chimed with the era’s dominant movement, modernism. While solid wood cut from the forest is characterful and of variable quality, plywood is a regular and predictable sheet material. The homogeneity of materials such as plastic and metal suited modernism’s tenets of machining and mass manufacture. Wood, converted into plywood, could be treated similarly.

Despite these industrial advantages, production of plywood strips wood of some of its natural qualities, most notably the spontaneity that first attracts many to use it. “You can make wood look like plastic,” says Max Lamb, a London-based designer who has been lauded for his craft-like approach to industrial design. “You can make plastic look like metal. And you can make metal look like anything else if you really want to. Modern manufacturing means it is possible to twist materials into any form, but I like products to show exactly what they’re made from, without the designer needing to explain them. I like the product to do the talking.”

It is an approach that resonates with many contemporary designers, some of whom have begun developing uses of wood that better correspond to its origins. One of the most radical of these practitioners is Pippa Murray, a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) Product Design MA. Murray’s graduation project Moulding Our Woodlands investigated the possibility of industrialising greenwood – unseasoned wood cleft from the tree. The result was a new material, sheets of wood shavings bonded by the natural polymer lignin, a chemical that leaches from the wood during treatment in a pressure cooker. Murray’s material is biodegradable, built from scrap that would otherwise be wasted, and can be shaped into simple structural forms such as chair legs.

“Greenwood has a life of its own. Every twig, branch, trunk and cleft bit of wood has grown independently to anything else,” says Murray. “I wanted my approach to be a contemporary process, but my starting point was craft, in the wood and the environment. The only solution I could find to make an industrial process for greenwood was to take it down to a mulch and then build it back up. There was success in that, but wood loses something when you treat it in that way. I tried to industrialise cleft wood, but I knew that wouldn’t work. It’s too individualistic.”

Murray’s reasons for working with the forest are political, a reaction to the design industry’s widespread use of energy-heavy processes and environmentally damaging materials such as plastics. “I like the expression of politics through making furniture and sourcing materials,” says Murray, “and that’s something that has a huge historical precedent if you look at things like the Utility Furniture scheme and Gordon Russell. There’s a factory near me that produces cellophane and it’s insane how much energy it takes to go from the cellulose in a tree to creating a Quality Street sweet wrapper – something that is used briefly and then thrown away. It all comes back to how and why we’re using our materials."

Working with a similar ethos is Sebastian Cox, a London-based furniture designer who produces commercial and bespoke pieces from coppiced wood, a sustainable material produced through a traditional method of cyclical forest management. Cox manages his own woodland and bases his practice around this methodology. The more regularly a tree is coppiced, he argues, the more regular – and hence industrial – its wood becomes. While coppicing is never likely to expand beyond a small-scale operation, it nonetheless presents a challenge to the culture of fast production and consumption. “What I’m offering is something that has come from a considered point of view,” says Cox. “I’m happy to accept that my side of the market may be small, but that’s OK. People need to decide how they want to consume. I’m a very strong believer that designers should take responsibility for what they make.”

Both Cox and Murray are idealistic, but their practices nonetheless engage with the realities of industrial manufacture – Murray’s lignin sheets are a chemical treatment of wood that could be manipulated on a large scale, while Cox’s coppiced wood has potential as a renewable industrial material. This grounding sets their practices apart from design movements that have previously engaged with nature, such as the crafts revival of the 1970s. Unlike their predecessors, today’s designers are not retreating into the woods out of nostalgia; they are looking at forests to provide solutions to contemporary design problems.

Such an interest in forests as a guide for material use ties to wider developments within design’s relationship with materials and processes. “One characteristic of a lot of current projects is taking a material and seeing if you can create something different from it. Can you push a boundary?” says Gareth Williams, senior tutor on the RCA’s Design Products MA. “What I find with a lot of students is a desire to take control of a given production technology, which may be on an industrial scale. They’re very desirous to make their mark and have an effect, but a lot of the time feel alienated by the scale of global manufacturing.”

Although designers have always experimented with materials and techniques – from Verner Panton and plastic, to Marcel Breuer’s work with tubular steel – this tendency towards the miniaturisation of industrial processes, and the potential to assert control over those processes, is something new. In this sense, Cox and Murray’s forestry experiments tie to work such as Anton Alvarez’s thread-wrapping machine or Joe Pipal’s Sweatshop, a portable steam-bending jig. These are designers creating processes, rather than products. “They’re bringing techniques down so they can understand them and all their permutations, but also so they can control them, generate with them and manage them themselves,” says Williams. “They’re getting back to making with their own hands and constructing their own work, but they don’t want to become craft makers for an elite. What they’re working with is the notion of how you can be industrial as a craftsman. Forests are one way into that.”

The growth of design’s interest in the woodlands can therefore be tied to an unease with modernism and the industrial revolution, a phenomenon characterised by the design critic Joseph Grima in the catalogue to his 2012 show Adhocracy – as “making perfect objects – millions of them, all the same, to the exactingly consistent standards prescribed by the International Organization for Standardization”. While the 20th century lusted after standardisation, a predominant concern of the 21st is a desire to recast serial production such that it can produce to scale, yet still result in unique pieces. “Every design movement is a sign of the time in which it was made,” says Italian designer Michele De Lucchi, “and today we are concerned with the comparison between industrial production and nature.” If the factory was the enduring symbol of the 20th century’s commitment to mass-produced goods, then the forest symbolises individuality and diversity in designers’ output; it is the symbol of the industrial craftsman.

Peter Marigold, a London-based designer, fits this title better than most. Marigold has worked with conventional manufacturers including SCP, Arco and Skitsch, yet makes heavy use of natural materials such as wood, stone and clay. His finished designs are raw and improvisational, and typical of his oeuvre are his Split Box Shelves. They are built up from constellations of wooden quadrilaterals, the exact forms of which are determined by the angles of their corner braces – seasoned logs that Marigold randomly splits into four, relying on the geometric principle that the interior angles of any split shape add up to 360°.

“The way I work is about removing my hand and evidence of my decision-making process from the products, and I think that’s a good mission statement for being a designer,” says Marigold. “If you go back to modernism, those designers declared that a certain table looked as it did because that was the best way to make it and the most efficient way. But they were lying. It was just another style; not the most economical, absolute, or perfect way to form a table. But it’s still very human to feel shame at your decisions and try to hide them. So the reason I use natural wood and similar materials is to absolve myself of the responsibility of designing surface and designing form. Allowing spontaneity is an abdication.”

A similar abdication to natural processes is present in the Austrian studio Mischer’Traxler’s The Idea of a Tree. Designed by Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler in 2008, the project is a machine that produces rigid cotton shapes that can serve as simple stools and lampshades. The machine is automated, but slavish to its environment. The Idea of a Tree is solar-powered, and the speed and nature of its production is governed by the amount of light it receives. On a bright day, it produces a thick weave with light colouration; on overcast days, the outcome is darker and thinner. The objects become testaments to their own production, with minor details about the day of their construction – ambient shadows or clouds – recorded in the final pieces.

“It began with the question of how serial production could be adjusted such that its outcome was a unique piece,” says Mischer. The reference to the forest and trees, Traxler says, came naturally: “If you cut down a tree, you can read the whole life of its growth in its structure. A tree is a kind of recording device and we wanted to bring that quality into our objects.” It is significant that the studio’s motivation for exploring individuality in serial production is neither grandiose, nor conceptual. “It just makes objects a bit more special when you know yours is different from one of your neighbour’s, even though it’s the same product,” says Mischer.

This modesty is the point. Designers such as Mischer’Traxler and Marigold are not trying to reset the achievements of industrialisation and modernism, but rather to further them. While factory- produced items can appear sterile in their standardisation, forests present an alternative, more individualistic form of mass production; they’re a model for how industry might develop in the future. Pine trees in any given forest are, in one sense, the same – they’re all pine trees and they share a common form – yet there is vast variation between each tree. “Nature and its systems are very inspiring to us in how we work,” says Mischer. “It’s really about seeing how far you can twist production processes to get uniqueness.”

While these studios have let the forest influence their design process, others have taken it as the subject of their work. Formafantasma’s 2012 Charcoal was a series of glass vessels with activated charcoal filters. The use of charcoal as a purifying agent commented on and subverted the environmental destruction caused by charcoal burning, a practice once widespread in European forests and which remains prevalent in Congo’s Virunga National Park. Similarly, Studio Swine’s ongoing experiments with human hair bonded with bioresin – a material previously used to create spectacle frames – are now being developed into furniture to serve as an alternative to heavily exploited tropical hardwoods.

Such interest is partly motivated by guilt, with an estimated 18 million acres of forest lost each year. While design is not a major contributor to this loss – with most cleared to make room for housing and urbanisation, the timber industry, large-scale agriculture and cattle ranching – the industry’s reliance upon wood means deforestation remains a pertinent issue for designers. “We can’t pretend to live in a world where our actions have no consequences,” says Harry Richardson, co-founder of avant-garde design studio Committee and an initiator of Out of the Woods, a 2012 RCA project that examined the lifecycle of wooden products. “We’re going through a steep transition of change, and what’s interesting is that there seems to be a generational shift; designers over 40 are very different to those under 30. For many of the older generation, these concerns have been bolted onto their reality, whereas for younger designers they’re a given.” “Particularly among young designers, issues of guilt can be quite persuasive,” adds Gareth Williams. “We’ve already got a glut of everything and with issues such as pollution, ecology and global warming, it is very easy to think: ‘God, should I be designing anything?’”

If the idealism of product design has faded however, optimism in other areas of the industry has flourished. Swedish designer Daniel Byström – who describes his practice as “community design”, using design as a research tool to solve problems affecting small-scale communities – joined Designers and Forests last summer, an expedition series founded by graphic designers Jason Dilworth and Margaret Urban that investigates how design might address problems facing the world’s forests. The first expedition took place in July-August 2013 in the forests of Utah, with Byström, Dilworth and Urban leading design students from Sweden’s Nässjö Academy and the State University of New York at Fredonia in meetings with forestry officials and the communities that have grown up around Utah’s forests.

The problems examined by the platform were diverse. Wood is Utah’s primary natural resource, but between 1997 and 2009, the US Forestry Department reported that 1.96 million acres of its forests had been destroyed by beetles, leaving wood that is stained blue from a fungal infection introduced by the insects. The widespread death of aspen trees, a little understood phenomenon, has further damaged the state’s resources, while fears over economic monocultures in its forest towns – communities typically dominated by big energy companies – are prevalent. Designers and Forests’ initial outcomes will be presented at Reykjavik’s DesignMarch event this spring, but its results are secondary to the expedition itself. Designers and Forests, Dilworth and Urban argue, is principally focused on creating a template for how design projects might operate, not on providing didactic solutions to set problems.

“What I’m interested in as a designer is the messy picture and forests are a good example of that; these problems aren’t things that can be solved quickly,” says Dilworth. “I’m optimistic that design can improve life, but we need to be realistic and start addressing larger problems that don’t have easy solutions. It’s alright to feel overwhelmed, but it’s important to keep contact with the people that those problems affect. Designers may see problems and come in and say that they have a solution for it. But unless you involve the people directly affected, it’s not a good solution.”

The forest, Urban says, is a natural starting point for expanding on this ideology. “A big problem in design is that people want to see issues in black and white. But the issues around forests are so many shades of grey,” she says. Faced with such complexity, the design process begins to shift towards Byström’s conception of community design. Rather than relying on the vision of individual geniuses to present singular solutions, collaboration and consultation become the best hopes for progress. The process is likely to be slow, however. “What came in with the modernist era was a view that there was right and wrong in design – but that just doesn’t work when applied to the majority of situations,” says Urban. “In general, designers are having to adapt to the idea that there are consequences to every solution. Whatever you do, you are likely to solve some problems, but in doing so create others.”

Designers’ engagement with the forest is not a coherent “ism” – all that is consistent across the range of aforementioned projects is a common motivation. These designers are not engaging with the forest out of a sense of nostalgia or whimsy; they do so because they believe it offers hope of real progress.