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AHEC and Wallpaper* at the Design Museum: talking about reforestation and natural materials

Slow reforestation is key; so far, our planting history is bad: we should be correcting this tendency to protect biodiversity long-term

Discovered at the London Design Museum: Genesis 

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) partnered up with Wallpaper* magazine to organize the show Discovered at the London Design Museum from September 13th to October 10th, 2021. The idea behind Discovered is to showcase a new generation of talents in the field of furniture design. Creatives coming from sixteen different countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia responded to a brief dealing with how they have experienced isolation during the pandemic and how this inspired their relationship to daily objects and to their work. Referring to a project called Connected, director of AHEC Europe, David Venables, explains: «We were able to link designers with workshops digitally and inspire them in spite of the pandemic. If established designers had found difficulties in working during the pandemic, imagine what it must be like for the younger generations». AHEC was simultaneously carrying out a conversation about new talents with Sarah Douglas, editor of Wallpaper*. They opened up the discussion to the Design Museum as well as some designers they had been collaborating with. 

Lampoon review: rediscovering types of wood species

Emerging talents were not the only ones to be discovered. Young designers had the possibility to experiment with materials they were not necessarily familiar with. Participants had to work with a selection of sustainable hardwoods provided by AHEC. Although the market is often driven by what is already in fashion, the idea was to shine a light on how these woods perform whilst having a lesser impact on the environment. American Red Oak is warm, granular, hard but flexible and is one of the most common species in broad-leaf forests which can grow up to twenty-one meters tall with a diameter of up to one meter; it offers plenty to work with and is perfect for folding and coloring. American Maple is light and thin and has peculiar flame-shaped patterns, growing up to twenty-three to twenty-seven meters tall. Two sub-species were used for Discovery, both of which are quite abundant and found in US northern states and in western mixed forests. American cherry was the last selected species. The trees are medium-sized and the wood has a pinkish color, with the heartwood varying from rich red to reddish brown and darkens with exposure to light. It was popular in furniture-making for a long time. Generally less popular than others, in order to rediscover these types of wood which are less damaging for the environment and currently available in larger quantities, «working with young designers was refreshing as they are not yet pressured by the market», and tend to work with more freedom. In this context, the pandemic has provided fertile ground too. It has created a supply stress, giving the industry «the opportunity to relieve it by using other materials that are better for the environment». In spite of traditional resistance and fear towards change, «all supply chains and economies have been disturbed», providing an opportunity for transformative action. Climate change and rising awareness from the public is also playing a role and «driving change». We must start reconsidering the way we give value to materials – and start assessing them according to what they give rather than how they look. 

Making of Thought Bubble by Nong Chotipatoomwan, exhibited at ‘Discovered’

Higher quality and lasting materials 

If we are to reach our sustainability goals for 2030 and beyond, we must adjust the «way we consume, use and behave». Using high quality materials which last longer, implies rising costs and prices, but it will push consumers to take better care of the objects they buy; driving the concept of reusing and recycling. «We are victims of fashion» and must understand that «fashion does not always coincide with sustainability». We have to keep an eye on low prices: «You cannot make a product of the future that is not going to be thrown away and that is going to last with ‘high-quality’ material for as little as one-hundred and fifty pounds – something somewhere is not working». The point is transforming cultures: «We spend money for all sorts of things – just think of your smartphone – so do we have the capability to do so» when it comes to materials. We are just wrongly accustomed to the idea that furniture must come cheap. Changing this mindset would also benefit the economic system «by increasing profit margins»: if you sell cheap products, you have to sell a lot of them, generating less value and more waste. The solution is value market. This is why showcasing high-quality products which are not widely known, such as at the Design Museum, will increase its awareness and thus become more common. 

Reforestation and rewilding 

One of the main issues when it comes to the wood industry is reforestation. If we keep using wood that is not abundantly available in a natural way, reforesting the areas needed to grow them becomes harder and ever more intensive. Reforesting is not as easy as it sounds: «We have been doing a pretty bad job so far». There is concern surrounding the long-term sustainability of our forests. It is true that wood is a resource that regenerates itself spontaneously but we have to be careful about the way we intervene and handle it, especially because of the effects this might have for our future. «Serious environmentalists are more concerned about loss of species than they are about loss of trees». We need the trees for carbon dioxide, but trees are also linked to biodiversity, insects, microbes and animals: «If you take them out of the equation, biodiversity changes completely and quite often reduces soil quality». We are starting to realize that all these elements are linked and that «the planet is one and has a very carefully balanced ecosystem which we have messed up. Now we have to think carefully about how we can save it». Being victims of trends, it is harder to protect sustainability. An additional issue comes from «resistance from other industries» who would not benefit from a wider use of sustainable hardwoods which have a higher cost: «A lot of lobbying is going on»

The notions of slow forestry and slow design 

Scientists agree that «there are always going to be situations in which we need planting» and «there is an argument for planting wherever a forest has been destroyed for agriculture or where ecosystems have been eliminated and you want to reforest». However, we have to keep in mind that «whenever it is possible [to wait], nature does it best», especially if the goal is biodiversity. One of the main mistakes is monoculture which results in limited use and does not work well for natural woodlands and the ecosystem: «We are cutting down forests to plant monocultures, which often work actively against soil quality and biodiversity». In order to solve this, «we need much more coherent global policies for agriculture and how to feed the world. Only then will we be able to reforest the planet intelligently». In the meantime, rewilding is essential at community level, something which we too rarely hear about: «Geed things are happening at community level and there is hope». Nature also has the spontaneous tendency to come back and regrow – a phenomenon which we are witnessing ever more often and can give birth to a virtuous cycle. An institution such as the Design Museum with Discovered is giving its contribution at a dual level: promoting the future generation and pushing towards a more responsible use of natural materials.

David Venables

David Venables is the European Director for the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC).

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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