Pushing the Boundaries

Friday 6 July 2018

Think furniture and we tend to visualise something made in a glorious timber, but a look at the world around us shows a predominance of materials other than wood. Leaving aside the obvious use of dreary chipboard faced with wood-a-like veneer that is the stuff of most office furniture, we find furniture made out of virtually every material known to man, from natural wood to those which are derived from the petrochemical industry.

There can be no argument that timber is one of the most beautiful materials known to man, who has been using it to make furniture since civilization began, embellishing it with glass and metals, and even spurning it in favour of stone to make thrones, benches and tables.

In 18th-century France Andre Charles Boulle was making ornate furniture for the court of King Louis IV, using cheap wood as the substrate for intricate metallic, turtleshell and ebony inlays. Come the Modernist design movement in the first half of the last century, however, and 200 years down the line furniture was no longer being made as ornament, to convey an idea of lineage and connection with history, but as a celebration of newness, originality, technical innovation and the future. Its form switched from being visually heavy to appearing light.

Between 1919 and 1933 the Bauhaus designers of Germany were exploiting materials like steel, canvas and leather to make such style icons as the Wassily armchair by Marcel Breuer and the much-copied Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe. The aim of both architects was to produce furniture that could be mass manufactured.

Fluid shapes

It was this mass manufacture that necessarily led to the development and use of new materials in the form of plastics, fibre glass and moulded plywood, enabling cheap production of desirable pieces such as those designed by Charles and Ray Eames.

When considering the implications for contemporary makers of bespoke timber furniture I believe the answer lies in the benefit of choice and inspiration. Architects like Amanda Levete, for example, experiment with materials to create the fluid shapes they are after. After seeing examples of work at the Furniture Futures symposium last year Andrew Varah said she did not produce straight lines. He was inspired to go back to the drawing board to look at his designs in an entirely new way.

Two men who have really pushed the boundaries by experimenting with modern technology are racing car design engineer John Barnard, whose influence can be seen in every car on the Formula One grid today, and lighting and furniture designer Terence Woodgate. They must have had fun collaborating over Surface Table which spans 4m and has a thickness of just 2mm at the edge, a feat theyu were able to achieve by exploiting technology from the autosport and aerospace industry along with the inherent rigidity of the layered carbon fibre from which it is constructed.

Woodgate said they were interested in taking the form of a normal table, one with legs at each corner, as far as they possibly could in their search for perfection. Radius corners, round legs, domed feet and rounded edges all accentuated the slimness of the design, making the entire form a seamless, blended geometric surface.

Sculptural form

Another advocate of carbon fibre is Nicholas Spens who makes furniture solely from this material and also constructs pieces that are a marriage of timber and carbon fibre.

He says on his website at www.nicholasspens.co.uk that his philosophy is to design and make bespoke carbon fibre furniture, wood furniture and accessories that follows a more naturalistic, sculptural form, but still maintains true function, each piece being individually hand crafted so that it can be appreciated not only for its aesthetic and artistic character, but also for its practicality. He believes that whether using more traditional woods or ultra-modern carbon fibre, every creation should have its own uniqueness and design concept and not necessarily conform to a standardised view of thinking or understanding, and adds that with its unique properties of strength, stiffness and amazing light weight, it is a material that is very specialist and unrivalled in its abilities. He says he has used composites for 14 years, being responsible for constructing bespoke racing yachts and components, structures and accessories for both the marine and motor-sport industries, and has realised that there is no reason why composites and carbon fibre with their unique abilities should not be applied and incorporated into modern interior design, furniture design and beyond.

New technology is not just for show, however. Yannick Chastang, who wrote about the work of Boulle in F and Cs 122 and 123, uses a sandwich of plywood with an aluminium honeycomb core to lessen the applied weight of his Boulle-work marquetry. He said it is extremely strong, does not warp or shrink. He applies veneers over the top of it, see New Materials panel.

Into the future

Some of the most exciting makers today are mixing their materials to great effect. Marcus White, for example, makes a virtue of purposeful stainless steel fixings seen through glass and Alex Panter mates polished concrete with fumed oak. Other makers are looking at the possibilities of materials like carbon fibre and working out how to bend wood to the same sinuous effect. So there we have it. an exciting choice of materials to either incorporate or use alone, and opportunities to be inspired by the use use by others of man-made materials to make seemingly impossible pieces in timber.