In a year marked by travel bans and lockdowns, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) partnered with London’s Design Museum and Benchmark to create Connected, a project exploring the potential of three important hardwoods and the pandemic’s impact on the design process.
Billed as an experiment in production methodologies, Connected set out to design and manufacture a series of home offices within lockdown requirements. Nine designers, including Ini Archibong, Thomas Heatherwick and Maria Jeglinksa-Adamczeska, were commissioned to design a table and seating for home working, communicating digitally with fabricators at Benchmark to produce the pieces remotely.
In the following interview, David Venables, AHEC's European Director and the project’s initiator, explains the process of designing with wood through the virtual ether.
One of the virtues of designing with wood is its tactility, so how did the designers find working with it remotely?
I don’t think any of them felt hampered by the digital process, and most have acknowledged that there were actually serious advantages to it. We got round the touch and feel issues through using samples, although the scale and final presence of the object was not as easy to compute. Some used their own workshops to experiment, but ultimately they had to trust somebody else for the final manufacture, which was a learning process. But we knew that Benchmark would be very good at this. It’s an inspiring story for anyone in the design sector and I’m sure there are lots of other examples of innovation during lockdown.
Why do you think the designers found this an exciting project to be part of?
We definitely reconnected or made new connections between the designers and wood, but we specifically connected them to timbers that not all of them knew well. They were working with American cherry, maple and red oak, which should all be more widely used in Europe. The aim was for the material to entirely drive the creative process, which doesn’t always happen in the real world: it’s quite unusual to slap a single material down on the table and say, “That’s what you’re going to work with.” The designers found that challenge of learning about their material exciting: its sustainability; where it comes from; its tactile nature; how the grain varies; how the colour shades vary. It's that versatility of wood which always excites me, an emotion we strive to pass on to the designers we work with.
Did working remotely change any of the design choices made?
We have a strong working relationship with Benchmark, so we know they like to be challenged by the designers they work with and are prepared to take on the impossible. Certainly, when Thomas Heatherwick first sent his idea across we thought it looked simple, but then we saw it was actually a bio-mimetic, computerised design where every single curve and ripple was asymmetrical. You wouldn’t know that unless you understood the process, but Thomas knew it could be done. The same with Studio Swine – because we briefed well, Alex and Azusa [studio founders Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami] understood the possibilities and challenged us to create a chair leg and back which is a double bend from a single piece of wood. From the beginning, we knew communication was the way forward. Handheld devices mean that you don't need to wait until your next visit to the workshop – you can just get on FaceTime and say, “I need to show you something”. That improved the designers' ability to make detailed choices. We’ve got lots of film of the Benchmark people sitting on chairs in front of Zoom saying, “Right, I feel we should drop the arms down,” or “These are the rail detail options, what do you want?” It was fascinating to watch that process – I learnt so much more about how studios respond to a brief and bring that to fruition.
How did Benchmark find manufacturing the pieces with only virtual feedback and interaction? Did it change how they approached the making process?
Compared with other products they have developed recently, it probably sped up parts of the process and it brought individual craftspeople into play much more. It was really lovely to watch one of the senior craftspeople using his iPhone to show Jaime Hayon, one of the world’s most famous designers, around his piece. That was a unique opportunity and it did help to be able to make that direct connection between artisan and designer.
You can find out more about the project and see the individual pieces by visiting connectedbydesign.online