A new exhibition by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) is championing the role that American hardwoods can play in the future of sustainable design and architecture.
AHEC’s ‘Three’ event is chronicling the works of three Nordic designer-makers at the annual 3daysofdesign festival in Copenhagen this week (7 to 9 June, 2023), to show how the material choices that designers make have the power to influence aesthetics, product performance and wider style trends.
As disrupted global supply chains and the climate crisis creates an urgent need for the design industry to rethink timber sourcing and make the switch to more environmentally responsible hardwoods, AHEC is setting out the case for the use of American hardwoods such as red oak, cherry and maple.
The three timbers all grow abundantly in American hardwood forests, making up a total of 40% of the forest volume between them, but are currently underused in the design sector. Each plays a key role in the forest ecosystem, and all contribute significantly to its diversity and sustainability.
As well as being easily renewable and serving as a natural carbon store, the woods are also strong, tactile, versatile, and aesthetically appealing – but all have their own distinctive traits and features.
American red oak is an attractive, open-grained, flexible wood and the most widespread hardwood in America’s forests. A tough, hard-wearing timber with excellent steam bending properties, it is easy to finish and stain, making it an ideal choice for furniture and interiors.
American maple is a close cousin of European maple and sycamore. A predominantly creamy-white, hard-wearing timber that can be machined and polished to a very smooth finish, it is a favourite for use in sports floors across the world. It is also the primary source of maple syrup.
American cherry varies in colour from pink to reddish brown, and will darken on exposure to light. It is easily machined and produces a smooth glassy finish when sanded and polished. This makes it well suited to turning, panelling and veneer applications, while its acoustic properties mean it is ideal for musical instruments and auditoria.
Promoting the possibilities of hardwoods
Three has been conceived to demonstrate the possibilities of these woods as sustainable, affordable materials through a trio of pieces that tread the border between functional design and sculptural art.
The all-female trio of designer-makers exhibiting each represent a different Nordic country: Anne Brandhøj from Denmark, Pia Högman from Sweden, and Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng from Norway.
Each was given one hardwood material and free rein to explore its creative potential in whatever way they like.
“Three is the latest chapter of an ongoing journey to explore the creative potential of three materials whose increased use are essential to the long-term sustainability of US hardwood forests,” explains David Venables, AHEC European Director.
“The brief to each designer-maker was to explore the material they were given to work with and let that process inform the creative outcome in whatever direction they chose. This is a very deliberate attempt to make the materials the focus and celebrate a fresh perspective on their potential.”
Inner Beauty by Anne Brandhøj (Denmark)
Danish designer-maker Anne Brandhøj produces enigmatic objects that cross the boundary between function and sculpture. While studying for her master’s in furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, a visit to a local sawmill helped her realise that she should shift her focus to natural, renewable materials that she could source herself. She began felling her own timber and exploring what would happen if she started shaping the wood before drying it.
She learned to value the imperfections, the knots and cracks, and to celebrate the distinct qualities of surface and grain. These details are the defining characteristics in the designs she now produces in her Copenhagen workshop, which she describes as “either functional sculptures or sculptural furniture”.
By building up layers of carved wood, Brandhøj has created a series of consoles with interiors every bit as surprising as her beloved tree trunks. Deep, smooth chasms puncture the cuboidal volume of each. Brandhøj encourages people to touch her designs, to understand the distinct feel of this particular timber.
“To some people, wood is just wood,” she says, “but to me, different types of wood give completely different experiences.”
Cured Series by Pia Högman (Sweden)
With family roots in Norrland, in the north of Sweden, Pia Högman became fascinated by birch bark, a cardboard-like material traditionally used to create everyday objects. Although the material is seldom used today, Högman’s grandfather was a carpenter, so many of the items she encountered day to day – from tableware to backpacks – were things he had crafted from it.
“It was the go-to material in the forest, you could use it for anything you wanted,” she explains.
This led Högman on a voyage of discovery into how birch bark might be used today. She has used the material to create small-scale objects including bowls and serving platters, furniture objects and even as roofing tiles for an architectural structure. “When I find a material that I find interesting, I want to dive into it and see all of the possibilities,” she says.
Applying the same research-driven thinking to American red oak, Högman discovered that this wood has equally untapped potential, due to it being frequently overlooked in favour of white oak. Keen to change this perception, she set about exploring how various surface treatments might offer new visual and tactile experiences.
At Three, Högman presents a set of five matching chairs, each treated with a finish that enhances the open-grained structure of the oak in a different way. Arranged in a satisfying spectrum of colours, the chairs incorporate both linear and curved panels, with details that highlight both the long and end grains of the wood. The designer hopes her experiments will help red oak to be seen in a new light. “My goal as a designer is not to simply produce products that anyone could make; it’s more important to me to contribute to something bigger, like giving materials new life,” she says.
Sno Shelves, Footstool and Stool by Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng (Norway)
Furniture and homeware designer Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng has a rebellious streak that plays out in the works she produces. Her unique shape language, which takes inspiration from the wild forest landscapes of rural Norway, developed as a reaction against the linear geometries that otherwise dominate the design world.
“I was so bored of seeing straight lines everywhere,” she says. “I wanted to make something different.”
Her process is highly intuitive, often taking cues from the material she is working with rather than a preconceived idea of how the object will be used. “Some people like to sketch on paper, but I prefer to think through my hands,” she explains.
When working with wood, she experiments with tools from chisels to chainsaws, creating forms that explore the irregular contours of the grain. The results may be smooth or multi-faceted, but they all feel highly rooted in the natural world.
In American maple, Øfstedal Eng was surprised to find a durable hardwood that behaves similarly to the Norwegian ash she is familiar with, but offers even more striking grain patterns.
“When you carve it, it creates an organic, double-curved landscape that is so aesthetically pleasing,” she says.
This inspired her to create a trio of furniture objects that combine her free-form geometries with the linear volumes that, until now, she has avoided. Taking cues from the way that moss spreads across the surface of a rock, Øfstedal Eng’s designs include a shelving unit that juxtaposes CNC-milled shelves with highly textural armatures and a footstool and stool that celebrate maple’s annual rings.
You can learn more about AHEC at https://www.americanhardwood.org/