Master and apprentice: AHEC at Clerkenwell Design Week

Dedicated to championing the sustainable use of timber in design and architecture, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has a track record not only of collaborating with the leading lights of the creative sector, but also of working with the emerging generation to explore the possibilities of underused woods. For Clerkenwell Design Week in May, AHEC achieved both.

Clerkenwell Design Week
(Image: Benchmark ILE Exhibition and Making Photography, Petre Krejci courtesy of AHEC)

Two events demonstrated the creative and practical properties of two hardwood varieties that are rarely used in conventional design production: American red oak and low-grade cherry.

The first, a major collaboration with one of the UK’s most prestigious design studios — Foster + Partners Industrial Design — and one of its leading craft furniture makers — Benchmark — on the new ILE modular workspace system. The second, a showcase of creative experimentation from the country’s future design talent — the students from Kingston University’s Product and Furniture Design course.

Although very different in outcome, both projects demonstrate the potential role that often-overlooked materials might play in ensuring a sustainable future for the industry and make the case for looking beyond conventional timber varieties when it comes to making beautiful, functional and high-quality design.

ILE – modular furniture for the spaces in between

Clerkenwell Design Week
(Image: Benchmark ILE Exhibition and Making Photography, Petre Krejci courtesy of AHEC)

ILE by Foster + Partners Industrial Design and Benchmark is said to be a flexible family of timber furniture comprising a range of interlocking elements. The collection was conceived to maximise the use of underutilised spaces in the workplace — the “in-between areas” that can often be wasted or inefficient.

ILE comprises benches, tables, lockers, shelves and planters, which can be connected via an innovative timber fixing strip both back-to-back and side to side, optimising office space and facilitating different modes of working.

The system is designed to accommodate lighting rails and power displays — as well as accessories such as shelves and book ends — at any position on the worktop. With most offices undergoing 10 fitouts in an average 60-year lifespan, this level of adaptability, coupled with the inherent durability of the hardwood, helps extend the longevity of the furniture.

“Our ambition was to create a highly flexible, solid timber system that can be easily reconfigured – while simultaneously embodying the high level of craft and quality that Benchmark is known for,” said Mike Holland, head of Industrial Design, Foster + Partners.

ILE makes use of two solid timbers — American red oak and British ash — both of which are practical, affordable, attractive and sustainable. The red oak, sourced from forests in the Northern Appalachians, is notable for its rapid rate of regeneration. Despite the fact it makes up around 18% of the hardwood forest of North America, it is massively underused, making its usage in ILE a net benefit in terms of making a more sustainable use of the forest.

The Cherry Project: Kingston students champion sustainability in hardwood furniture design

As a timber, high-grade cherry is widely used by interior designers and architects in high-end joinery and interior architecture. Lower grades provide equally beautiful and sustainable wood and are a great choice for projects that do not require very long sections, such as kitchen cabinetry, furniture parts, and flooring; however, they are less popular.

To ensure sustainability, it is crucial to use all parts of a harvested tree, not just the premium grades. To promote this approach, Kingston’ students were challenged to create furniture using lower grades of American cherry. By embracing lower grades, the design community can lead the way in sustainable practices, achieving both cost-effectiveness and environmental stewardship.

As part of their ‘Intelligent Making’ module, 50 second-year students of Kingston’s Product & Furniture Design course were presented with offcut low-grade cherry and invited to create new design forms.

“Working directly with materials and exploring processes is critical to our student experience. The physical investigation of materials enables new ideas to emerge. Having a good amount of hardwood to play with has allowed us to explore structure and prototype freely, both at scale and full size. This means every student has had the opportunity to establish their own structural principles and to manufacture their own full-size finished prototypes to a high standard,” said Carl Clerkin, tutor, Product & Furniture Design, Kingston University.

The result is an collection of furniture and objects that offer fresh, practical and creative perspectives on an overlooked material. From stools and shelving to benches and even a playground see-saw, the body of work produced showcases both the versatility of cherry and the visionary talent of the emerging design generation.

“The next generation of designers, more than any before them, will need to adapt to a new way of thinking about the materials they use and the environmental impact of the designs they produce. This project has given these students a valuable experience of working with a timber species that is currently out of fashion but has the potential to offer so much to the world of product design. It has also shown that, with imagination, you can make beautiful products from what would be rejected as unsuitable in the commercial world, said David Venables, European director, AHEC.