AHEC at Milan Design Week, working with designers on maple wood

AHEC at Salone del Mobile

At this year’s Salone del Mobile, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) shone the spotlight on maple species, a valuable yet underused hardwood with a delicate colour and a beautifully fine grain.

Two UK studios participating in the Wallpaper* ‘Class of ’24’ exhibition at the Triennale were commissioned to create new work in maple: the artist and architect Giles Tettey Nartey, and the interdisciplinary studio Parti, founded in 2015 by Eleanor Hill and Tom Leahy.

Supported by AHEC and Jan Hendzel Studio, each used maple as a material springboard to explore and experiment, creating two very different bodies of work from a common starting point.

Communion by Nartey

Through its form, Communion aims to elevate the act of pounding cassava to the level of performance, one person pounding, another turning the mixture in an almost choreographed fusion of movement and sound that is akin to dance, according to Nartey

Making his Milan debut, the British-Ghanaian designer Giles Tettey Nartey used the commission as an opportunity to explore culture, culinary tradition, and the rituals of domestic life in Ghana.

Created from maple, which is dense and durable, Communion is a table designed for the making of fufu, a West African staple food which is made by pounding cassava into a dough. Nartey’s table reimagines this practice as a communal performance, in which everyone comes together in the shared act of making food.

His design features an outer table equipped with dents, grooves, bowls, and bumps to enhance the preparation and cooking process, while a central table is dedicated to serving and communal dining. Included within the design are mortars (woduro) and pestles (woma) for grinding cassava, along with seating inspired by both traditional Ashanti stools and typical kitchen stools found in Ghana.

“The piece celebrates a practice that is so local to West Africa presented in a new way which gives emphasis to the ‘communal’ by allowing multiple people to participate in the process of making fufu. The everyday local ritual is therefore transformed into performance, exposing the beauty I have always seen in everyday Ghanaian life,” said Nartey.

Piroutte by Parti studio

Parti’s Pirouette collection is a range of timber furniture that explores complex geometric forms

Inspired by the fluid movement of fabric and the childlike joy of spinning around, Parti’s Pirouette collection is a range of timber furniture that explores complex geometric forms.

Translating the folds and creases of twisting and billowing fabric into the solid forms of seats and tables is a demanding and complicated process, usually associated with sculpture and the highest levels of craftsmanship.

“At Parti, we are interested in utilising new technologies and processes, and pushing them to the limit. As a result, the making process is integral to the design, informing its boundaries,” said Eleanor Hill, director at Parti.

Collaborating with Jan Hendzel Studio, Parti embarked on a journey of experimentation, pushing the boundaries of a three-axis CNC machine to sculpt the wood and develop the furniture.

Maple’s density makes it especially suited to the creation of sculptural shapes through CNC cutting. Because the CNC machine cuts only one side of the wood, the forms are simplified, with each piece constructed from a series of complex shapes connected together, with top and bottom elements acting as ‘keys’ to lock everything together and sustain the furniture’s structure.

AHEC calls for material diversity

For AHEC, the principal goal of these collaborations has been to bridge the gap between the design industry and the naturally regenerating forests that supply American hardwoods, and to call for a sustainable material-first design approach that is led by resource availability rather than trends.

To truly embrace sustainability, AHEC believes the industry must shift its paradigm towards a more holistic understanding of materials. This begins with integrating material choice into the initial stages of the design process, prioritising responsibly sourced, renewable natural materials and investing time and effort in learning and understanding their unique characteristics and potential.

Rather than treating natural materials as like-for-like substitutes for man-made equivalents, design must recognise and celebrate their inherent qualities and imperfections as part of their charm and authenticity.

By adopting this mindset and approach — as Parti and Giles Tettey Nartey have in this project — the wood industry can foster a more sustainable design ethos that respects and preserves the natural world while meeting the needs of contemporary design aesthetics.

Images: AHEC