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Out of The Woods

RCA students camp out in Terrence Conran's backyard to produce 12 chairs featured at the V&A.

by CH Contributor in Design on 18 September 2012

by Monica Khemsurov

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While wood will always be a well-respected classic in the furniture world, these days it seems like we're constantly hearing about yet another designer making yet another new chair out of walnut or oak. But the news that 15 of them have spent a week camping in Terence Conran's backyard while producing 12 chairs they've just installed in the V&A's storied British galleries—well, that's enough to hold our attention.

Led by tutors Sebastian Wrong of Established & Sons and Harry Richardson of Committee, a group of Royal College of Art students was recently invited out to Conran's property in the English countryside by Benchmark, his sustainable furniture brand, and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). The teachers gave them a brief—design a seat for function—while Benchmark gave them its production facilities, and AHEC gave them a choice of hardwoods from the US, plus a scheme by which to measure the environmental impact of their designs. The final chairs, which debuted at the V&A on Friday as part of the 2012 London Design Festival, all offer intriguing twists on traditional handicraft methods.

Four of them focus on various ways of cutting the slimmest and/or lightest profile possible. Petter Thorne's Beeeench spans an impressive 11.5 feet, yet can be lifted with one hand––it's made almost entirely from thin, quarter-inch slices of wood that are slotted together in an I-beam formation for added strength. Michael Warren scored highest on the project's sustainability scale with his Designed Legacy stool, which takes advantage of an extra-shallow joinery technique to enable the use of even tinier pieces of wood.

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Norie Matsumoto and the team of Nic Gardner and David Horan both made pieces that collapse flat for packing and transport—Gardner and Horan's with removable legs made from coils of thin ply, and Matsumoto's by way of folding joints.

Other designers have gone a more conceptual route, like Mary Argyrou, whose Bauhaus-inflected Solitude chair was inspired by the church furniture of her native Cyprus.

Tom Gottelier and Bobby Petersen employed the help of a local boat-builder to make a seat that can actually float, complete with two GPS-guided motors.

The duo of Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw––upon learning that 50-80% of the wood used in typical furniture production is wasted––mixed leftover timber shavings with bio-resin to sculpt the lumpy shell of their piece. Anton Alvarez, on the other hand, attempted to use up nearly the entirety of a cherry log, carving two thirds of it into a pyramidal bench while leaving the rest intact, bark and all.

The students fabricated all the chairs themselves with the help of Benchmark's production team, which seemed like a great idea at the start of the project but in practice turned out to be something of a headache, according to Benchmark co-founder Sean Sutcliffe. The students showed up eager to work, but troubleshooting, refining and building that many new designs in only seven days caused a logistical strain on both sides of the shop table. "But it worked—we made 12 chairs in a week," says Sutcliffe, who noted that the group learned an important lesson along the way: "We makers need designers to keep pushing us, and designers need the practical thinking of us makers."

"Out of the Woods: Adventures of 13 Hardwood Chairs" is on view at the V&A through 23 September 2012.

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