An elemental and time-honoured material, wood is being bent, twisted and layered in new and evocative ways – and replacing plastic while it’s at it.
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).
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 larger-scale 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 Kokera-buki 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.