It's a description that would seem to apply to London-based design studio Raw-Edges’ latest project, Endgrain. A furniture series that is soaked in dye throughout its grain to create colourful three-dimensional patterns, Endgrain came about when studio founders Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay reexamined the stained oak parquet flooring that they had created for the Stella McCartney store in Milan in 2010.
The McCartney flooring, originally executed with Established & Sons, consists of a multicoloured parquet floor arranged in a herringbone pattern. “Because the stain is just on the surface we always used to have problems with the entrance of the shop," says Mer. "Where you have high volumes of traffic the colour starts to fade away. We would have to repaint it each year to make sure the colour remained bright and pristine. We just thought it would be amazing if we were able to soak it all the way through.”
Endgrain is the execution of this idea. The series is made up of handcrafted furniture, shelves and jam jar tops, all of which were commissioned by a private collector before being presented recently at Gallery Senne in Brussels, Belgium as part of the city's Design September festival. Each piece is made up of an assortment of wooden blocks that have been individually stained with dye. Yet unlike conventional dyes, the colour is not just on the surface of the material, it is saturated throughout the grain. It means that the pieces are not subject to colour fade; stripping off the outermost layer reveals the same colour below.
“With Endgrain the colour is fully there so whenever it gets dirty or simply wears in the sun, you can just sand it down and the colour shall come out again," says Alkalay. "When you have a dirty wall you paint it and add another layer, but with Endgrain you just remove the layer."
The constituent wood blocks in the pieces are glued together like a butchers block, before being sculpted to create the final products. Each of these pieces is curved in such a way as to distance the works from looking like marquetry (the process of building intricate patterns out of flat pieces of veneer). It also reveals the graphic distortions created by the arrangement of the colours, which are laid out in a grid demarcated by green veneer.
The idea for the timber soaking came from xylem, the water-conducting tissue that is found in trees and which facilitates the transportation of nourishment through the roots and into the remainder of the plant. Mer and Alkalay reasoned that if water could be transported through a wood’s grain, so could dye.
In theory, the technique of soaking wood in dye for several days in order to get the grain to absorb the colour (as a tree would absorb water and nourishment) is relatively straightforward. The reality however proved more difficult. The final project resulted from a year’s research into which woods would successfully absorb the dye.
“None of us are very good at deductive research and looking at the chemical side of things, so we had to experiment a lot to get to this point. We tried any common wood and therefore there was a great deal of trial and error,” says Alkalay. “Some woods you would soak for two whole days and absolutely nothing happened - the dye just wouldn’t absorb.”
Following months of experimentation, the studio settled on two types of wood: jelutong timber (a wood with a similar aesthetic to bolsar; it is initially near-white and then darkens to yellow with age) and southern yellow pine, a heavier and more natural type of pine native to Southern America. The use of two different woods was important in achieving the final aesthetic of the collection. Jelutong making up the majority of the pieces, but the southern yellow pine offers greater texture with its heavier grain.
Raw-Edges's portfolio is extensive and since its foundation in 2007 the studio has worked for brands including Kvadrat, Established & Sons, Cappellini, Golran and Caesarstone. Yet with Endgrain requiring such an extensive (and subsequently expensive) research process, Raw-Edges now plans to focus on developing the technique further for the next few years. “It is actually something quite new to us because usually we jump around a bit more," says Mer. "But because Endgrain is such a long and demanding process it is impossible to jump so much.”
“It's something we want to focus on for a few more years until we can’t stand it anymore,” says Alkalay.
For similar reasons, the collection will not go into any form of serial production. “It is simply too complicated and expensive," says Alkalay. "Instead we are just going to work on commission basis. In the exhibition for Brussels Design September we received a budget but we used it all for the research. We didn’t earn one single penny as it was so expensive to buy all the tools, the machinery and the stain. At one point we had six people working on the project. It was a pleasure though, without this commission we would never have gotten to this stage.”
“These pieces are very much handmade and studio-made” says Mer. “There are a lot of instances where people are doing limited edition just for the sake of doing limited edition. We feel very comfortable about Endgrain being limited as it simply can’t be any other way. It just doesn’t make sense in any other capacity.”