Future Heirlooms: New design collaboration in American red oak now open

All seven pieces of Future Heirlooms (Image: Sarah de Pina)

Future Heirlooms, a design collaboration by South African cooperative Always Welcome and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), is now open at Always Welcome Viewing Rooms in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa.

The project, which was initially announced in July 2022, will remain at its current location until November 2022, and will then move to the new Always Welcome Heritage House in Cape Town in January 2023.

For this project, a group of seven South African designers from three provinces across the country have created a series of works that not only anticipate the future of sustainable design, but also explores their own heritage and the story of South Africa’s design legacy.

Created in American red oak by hardwood furniture designer-manufacturers Houtlander and timber importers BOS Timbers, the seven pieces are a celebration of material and memory, and ask questions about current approaches to the environment.

The seven pieces were crafted by various design studios and designers, such as Dokter and Misses, MashT Design Studio, TheUrbanative, Kumsuka, Kalki Ceramics, Joe Paine in partnership with Nathan Gates, and Nøde Studio.

Under the mentorship of the Always Welcome team, the designers were asked to create an object or a piece of furniture that encapsulates the themes of sustainability, longevity and quality.

“We need to end our current throwaway culture and we need to use materials that have a low environmental impact. These issues should affect all our day-to-day decision-making,” said Roderick Wiles, regional director of AHEC.

“Designers, especially, have a huge influence on how products are planned and with what materials. This project was the perfect platform for us to work with accomplished South African designers and makers, while also helping them to work with an abundant, versatile and beautiful, yet lesser-known American hardwood species.”

For the designers, the project has offered an opportunity to explore alternative manufacturing methods, and American red oak itself.

Commenting on her participation in the project, Thabisa Mjo, founder of Johannesburg-based product and furniture design group MashT Design Studio, said: “The material intrigued me from the outset of Future Heirlooms. I became fascinated by the seemingly endless possibilities of American red oak itself that, coupled with Houtlander’s special ability to work with timber, set my imagination alight and I just had to see what could be made.”

The American red oak arrived for the project at the South African port of Durban was also carbon negative. AHEC reported that just about 1.3m3 of American red oak were used to make all seven pieces, with the finished pieces being made up just under 1m3 of wood after manufacturing.

For their lifetime, these seven furniture pieces will keep around 1,069kg of CO2e out of the atmosphere.

Wiles concluded: “Such is the size of the US hardwood forest resource and so dominant in the forest is red oak at roughly 18% of the total resource, that all the red oak lumber used to make the seven designs would have been replaced in the US hardwood forest through natural regeneration in just 1.35 seconds.

“With the world facing the ever-increasing impacts of climate change and of over-consumption of high-impact materials, the emphasis needs to shift to the environmental merits of making more use of what nature is growing.

“Through this collaboration, we hope the designers and manufacturer learnt a lot about a beautiful and sustainable material while also demonstrating the beauty of a widely-available, yet under-utilised American hardwood species.”