There was no better way to kick off my London Design Festival 2014 than “The Wish List” at the Victoria and Albert Museum. With a mentoring relationship at its heart, the project began with a conversation between Benchmark, Terence Conran and the American Hardwood Export Council. They conceived of ten leading designers commissioning the object that they had always wanted but never found or had time to design themselves. The ten commissioners chose, or were matched with, up-and-coming designers, for whom it was the commission of a lifetime!
Each of the young designers was given a box of American hardwoods, and the design process unfolded, culminating in an intense, “Making Week”, or first furniture festival, at Benchmark working with master craftsmen skilled in traditional techniques, as well as the latest technologies. Benchmark has embraced sustainability from its outset in 1984, after Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder with Terence Conran, was influenced by Jonathon Porritt. The commitment to sustainability, craftsmanship and expertise in timber (though they also have a specialist metal workshop and an upholstery studio), made Benchmark an ideal partner for AHEC in The Wish List. AHEC were keen not only to showcase the range and properties of American hardwood, but also share the AHEC’s work on life-cycle assessment (LCA) with the designers.
Wood has many environmental virtues: it is organic, renewable, versatile, and a carbon sink. The area covered by American hardwood forests is equivalent to UK, France & Spain combined, and the AHEC estimate that the carbon footprint of all ten projects is less than one return flight to New York. Wood is also probably the material that man has been working with for longer than any other. Wood is sensual and tactile, overtime it responds our touch, changing patina, becoming smooth, or chipped, with each knock or indent becoming part of the story of the object.
The young designers made careful choice of their material. Sebastian Cox asked David Venables of AHEC which were the least popular in the UK and deliberately chose to work with them, seizing the opportunity to elevate their status. Cox, who usually works with greenwood, relished the opportunity to experiment with red oak and cherrywood. Initially Conran had wanted a rail and curtain to screen his desk, in response Sebastian suggested a curved, woven screen. The kiln-dried oak was too inflexible to weave, so Cox made use of swilling, a technique he recently learnt with Lorna Singleton to soften the timber so it was malleable enough to weave. Swilling, or soaking, the timber in the stream at Barton Court, Terence and Vicki Conran’s 18th-century country home, connected the piece to the landscape of its future home.
Known for his innovative use of wood, Alex de Rijke, Dean of the School of Architecture, RCA, and a founding Director of the architectural practice dRMM, pioneered the use of hardwood for cross-laminated timber (CLT) for the Endless Stair he designed at last year’s London Design Festival, so it is unsurprising that he and Barnby & Day chose to use CLT made of American tulipwood. But this fast-growing timber, that is is often overlooked, overpainted and “chopped through to get to the good stuff” is here given the Midas touch. Nathalie de Leval’s shed for Paul Smith was made of thermally modified ash (pictured right, and below with Terence Conran, Paul Smith and Nathalie de Level). Thermally modified timber (TMT) is heat-treated for three or four days in an inert atmosphere (no oxygen). The process irreversibly changes the chemical and physical properties of the wood so that does not need additional treatment as it is more resistant to rot, fungi and moisture.
The Wish List fused the craft of design and the craft of making. A conversation with some of the designers, commissioners, and Sean Sutcliffe, chaired by Edwin Heathcote, explored the relationship between the two. Heathcote recounted a recent visit to a design school without workshops. Today industrial design is often separated from making with products moving from design to rapid prototyping and then manufacture overseas. Sean Sutcliffe offered a definition of craft from Richard Sennett, author of The Craftsmen, as when “the point of focus becomes the limit of the tool”.
The Ves-sel that Gareth Neal made for Zaha Hadid is a perfect example of engaging traditional process and digital manufacture. Neal said he “provocated Sean to use the CNC router”, and Benchmark had to upgrade its software accordingly. Neal had been invited to Hadid’s company offices and use their modelling software to create the vessel’s design that captures the fluidity of Hadid’s designs, and functions as a water carafe. One of the vessel’s was left unpainted, after consultation with Hadid, to reveal the natural colour. The vessel is extruded along one axis, with a slit at the end creating what Neal describes as a ‘cathedral-like space’. If not monumental in scale, it is in complexity. Sutcliffe described the object as an outstanding piece of craftsmanship, “the most remarkable thing we have ever made”.
Continuous involvement in the process, and evolvement of skill underpins the best craftsmanship, and several commissioners warn of the limitation of digital tools. As Amanda Levete noted the link between intellect and hand becomes more remote with technology, an element of control is relinquished. Something may seem perfectly resolved, but not be conceptually perfect, but without space for adjustment. With rapid prototyping a hundred options can be quickly, and extravagantly, produced, but does this ease compensate for a lack of rigour at the design stage? Making great objects is often an iterative process in response to the material. For Alex de Rijke one of the constraints of digital technology is that computers do not have the same dialogue with materials or scale. Alison Brooks, too, describes how computer design can quickly take a designer into complexity that they have to navigate out of, often through physical experimentation.
The “Making Week” brought many of these tensions to the fore. With no experience of physical making, Win Assakul was persuaded to pick up hand tools to craft the 3m long serving dish he designed for Amanda Levete. Hand-making is part of the story of the object, requiring considered, elegant solutions to the complex shape and presentation of the dish.
The “Table-Turned” Barnby & Day designed for Alex de Rijke presented the challenge of scale. Weighing 170kg, and with a diameter of 2m, the table is quiet possibly one of the largest objects to be turned on a lathe. Benchmark brought in specialist turner Mike Bradley to turn the table in 3 sections, with the largest section turning at 62mph on the outer edge.
Even skilled craftsman, Sebastian Cox was presented with new challenges. The Conran commission, “Getting Aware from it All” was, Cox said, “the most intricate and challenging thing that I had ever made, but how often will I get the chance to design for someone who is so important in the industry?” If the screens were 1mm out at the joint, they would be 5mm our where they met. The rolling tambour is made from solid strips of wood, rather than cloth-backed and there is a secret drawer. The compliment was repaid by Conran, “I have been making furniture for 60 years but I am still learning from Sebastian”.
Not all the project were conceived as one-offs. Felix de Pass’ “A Stool for the Kitchen” designed with Alison Brooks could in future grace our homes. The series of architectural elements, “Room”, designed by Atelier Areti with John Pawson could indeed make the everyday more beautiful. Simple, elegant forms finished with an incredible attention to detail. For example, the grain on the dimmer knob of the light switch is aligned with that of the base plate when it is switched off.
Wish list is about design, and beautiful materials. For the commissioners it was an unusual role reversal, a process Amanda Levete found moving as though handing the baton on to the next generation of inspiring designers. It is also about the intensity of making, the joy of sharing collaboratively, and the richer learning that results: that was perhaps the real alchemy of the Wish List. Sean Sutcliffe certainly hopes that seed has been sown.
The AHEC Wish List page has a playlist of short films of each of the pieces, but the installation is definitely worth a visit to the V&A!
Image credits: AHEC, or my own.