Sitting down with American Hardwood


19 February 2013

While visiting Stockholm Design Week, Disegno joined up with the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and tutors and students from London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) for a round table exploration of Out of the Woods, a 2012 design project.

Out of the Woods was organised by AHEC, the RCA and wooden furniture manufacturer Benchmark during summer 2012. Fifteen students from the RCA were invited to spend a week camping at Benchmark’s Berkshire workshop, during which time they were tasked with designing and manufacturing hardwood chairs, and recording all of the materials and processes that they used as part of the process.

At the fair, Disegno’s editor-in-chief Johanna Agerman Ross hosted a panel discussion reflecting on the project’s legacy. Joining Johanna on the panel were AHEC director David Venables; Benchmark co-founder Sean Sutcliffe; RCA tutors Harry Richardson and Sebastian Wrong; and four graduates who participated in the project: James Shaw, Anton Alvarez, Marjan van Aubel and Petter Thörne.

The panelists assessed three key issues: the importance of manufacturing experience for design students; why green design is increasingly relevant for young designers; and life cycle analysis, an environmental technique employed by students during the project.

Life cycle analysis is a means of tracking and quantifying the environmental impact of a product from cradle to grave. Throughout Out of the Woods, students logged the exact quantities of all materials used, as well as recording all machining time required to create the chairs. By the end of the project, this data had been used to build up comprehensive scientific overviews of the environmental impact of each chair.

Out of the Woods was exhibited as part of the Stockholm Furniture Fair, with each of the chairs produced by students on display in the Stockholmsmässan exhibition hall.

Below, we publish some of our highlights from the discussion:

Johanna Agerman Ross Are schemes like Out of the Woods playing an important part in design education by introducing students to the commercial and manufacturing worlds?

Harry Richardson In an institution like the RCA there can be a disconnect with the wider world and things can become quite internalised. This project represented a real exposure to the concerns of wider industry.

James Shaw It was quite outside of the usual college experience. We do have a workshop at the RCA, but you’re not in there for a full week. An actual commercial factory is quite a different world to the bandsaw and small bits and bobs we have at the RCA. But it’s an important experience. If you go into any design studio in the world you’ll see too many people just sat facing their computers. Actual making is vital.

Sebastian Wrong A lot of students have a desire to experiment and explore ideas: that’s good and why they’re on a course at somewhere like the RCA. But at some point that creativity needs to be bought into line with the reality of industry and production. Having the experience of working in a proper workshop environment is very valid. I think the students walked away learning an enormous amount about not just the objects they made, but the environment as well.

Harry Richardson Absolutely. There is the virtual realm - which is a craft in itself - but it needs to be informed by a deep understanding of the materials that a design is intended for. There’s an enormous gap between the two.

Johanna Agerman Ross Where has life cycle analysis come from?

David Venables It’s something I came across in the German automotive industry, where they use it to look at the impacts of materials and processes in car-making. But it is now becoming relevant in considering the impact design materials. There’s a whole move towards green building and design, but we’re still not clear about what exactly the definition of a green material is. Life cycle is a chance to create a scientific definition of what is environmentally friendly and what isn’t by using real data.

Johanna Agerman Ross Is it something that the design world is embracing?

Sebastian Wrong It needs to, but it hasn’t necessarily done so yet. It’s a responsibility that needs to come up from the ground and the industry needs to accept that and think seriously about production and the impact that it is having. It’s a big subject, but a necessary one. Inputting that seed into an institution like the RCA is the right way forward.

Harry Richardson For younger people there is no question of its relevance, but as you creep up the age bracket it starts to get a bit woolier.

Sean Sutcliffe It’s hugely important for the commercial world. I didn’t become involved in this project to secure my place in some “green heaven”; I did it because it’s good for business. Businesses really need to understand that a green agenda is good commercially. A day is going to come when we are taxed on the life cycle values of the products we make. There will be financial imperatives that will drive our buying decisions. Life cycle is a new science for moving forward our creative thinking.

Harry Richardson What is so exciting is that it gave the students a discipline with which they can analyse their creativity. It’s not a new dogma; it’s an opportunity for understanding the practical discipline that is design.

Johanna Agerman Ross What do you hope the legacy of the project will be?

David Venables That there is a way you can cut through all of the "greenwash" and establish scientifically what is a green process, a sustainable process, and what isn't.

Sebastian Wrong The embracing of this life cycle concept at a ground level. We need to work with students at institutions. That should be the first step.

Harry Richardson At somewhere like the Stockholm Furniture Fair you see people exploring all sorts of aesthetic realms, but the interesting thing about life cycle analysis is that it's simply a tool. It’s something that is going to cut through all the complexities of communication in the market.

Sean Sutcliffe We're surrounded by thousands of manufacturers and designers, but almost none of them know anything about this science. If we achieve the planting of a seed, then people will start to think about it. It's going to take a long time to be a sapling and even longer to become a tree, but it will some day. The seed starts here.