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Alternatives to Wood

Monday 9 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 pieces made out of virtually every material known to man, from natural wood to those which have been 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, but 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 XIV, 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 Marcel Breuer's Wassily armchair and Mies van der Rohe's much-copied Barcelona chair. 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 & Ray Eames. So what, then, are the implications for today's 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. As Andrew Varah commented after seeing examples of her work at last year's Furniture Futures symposium: “She doesn't produce straight lines. I'm going back to the drawing board to look at my 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, but how were they able to achieve this feat? The answer lies in their exploitation of technology from the autosport/aerospace industry along with the inherent rigidity of the layered carbon fibre from which it is constructed.

Woodgate said: “We were interested in taking the form of a normal table, one with legs at each corner, as far as we possibly could. It became a search for perfection. Radius corners, round legs, domed feet and rounded edges all accentuate 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.

“My philosophy is to design and make bespoke carbon fibre furniture, wood furniture and accessories that follow a more naturalistic, sculptural form, but still maintain a true function”.

“Each piece being individually hand crafted can therefore be appreciated not only for its aesthetic and artistic character, but also for its practicality. I believe 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.”

He adds: “With its unique properties of strength, stiffness and amazing light weight, it is a material that is very specialist and unrivalled in its abilities. I have 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.

“I have 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&Cs 122 & 123, uses a sandwich of plywood with an aluminium honeycomb core to lessen the applied weight of his Boulle-work marquetry. “It is extremely strong, doesn't warp or shrink,” he said. He applies veneers over the top of it, see New Materials sidebar, below.

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 others' use of man-made materials to make seemingly impossible pieces in timber.

New materials

Carbon fibre, Kevlar and glass fibre are woven dry fabrics which are laid into a mould and then impregnated with a resin. This then cures and forms the finished product. Using this process, any shape can be created, allowing the fibres to be laid along the orientation of the stresses and loads within the piece, in turn resulting in a structurally immensely strong but very thin and light product that appears to defy the laws of science.

Carbon fibre

“Carbon fibre has great aesthetic qualities, which along with its strong structural abilities creates an image that is modern, minimalist and often exotic with its associations with the exclusive world of technology and science,” Nicholas says on his website. “In its natural form with a clear varnish, carbon fibre has a finish that has a 3D effect which appears to have fluidity as you move around the product, displaying a surface that is truly unique. Composites are capable of withstanding the rigours of extreme conditions, therefore can be used both indoors and out with ease.”

There were a couple of technical problems, he advised me. Timber and carbon fibre furniture can split at the glue line if it is exposed to a drying, hot environment which shrinks the timber. Also, wood must be sealed before the carbon fibre is sanded otherwise the fine dust will get into the grain, staining the piece black. He also advised using epoxy resin glue for the whole job as this adhesive must be used on the carbon fibre components. Be warned, though: it is not cheap.

For more on Nicholas's work go to his website.

Aluminium honeycomb

Aluminium honeycomb/plywood sandwiches are sold by the sheet and, said Yannick, are about 10 times as expensive as MDF.

He covers the exposed edges with solid oak or ebony and glues the marquetry embellishment onto the outside.

“Because it is so light you can reduce the size of your hinges,” he said. “This means that with any otherwise weighty door I can use normal hinges. He had one word of caution: “If you want to drill right into the panel think about it first because you will be drilling into air.”

For more on Yannick's work see his website.

A similar product to the one he uses is available from this website.