Wood and What Else?

I love wood; I love working with it, seeing it in its various stages of expression from raw plank to satin-polished surface. Sometimes, though, the use of a ‘complementary’ material in a design enhances wood’s ascendance and also creates a dialogue among the parts that adds depth and substance.

None of this is easy to achieve; in fact, it’s far easier to stick with one material rather than open up what could be a can of worms of interface problems and construction complications. The real trick, and it almost sounds oversimplified, is in designing a piece around the disparate parts rather than trying to make them fit together.

Here’s a brief account of one adventure I had with mixing materials:

A long term designer-client approached me with an intriguing project possibility: a client of his wanted a sideboard, or more specifically, a wine cabinet, and she really liked the look of ‘live edge’ slab tops. In the course of exploring some preliminary options, my designer friend (Chris Beggs of CBBeggs Interiors) suggested also using wrought iron, since the hallway railing was made of it, and some kind of ‘artisan glass’ as a foil to the wood. The design intent was to create a piece of furniture that would combine the uniqueness of its use with the one-of-a-kind nature of the materials.

As an aside, ‘wrought’ iron really means forged steel – commercially available ‘hot-rolled’ steel that is then heated again and worked, either hammered or twisted or bent into a new shape. The work is almost always done ‘by hand’ leaving certain irregularities that bear a signature of ‘character’. Another term for it is ‘blacksmithing’ and, like many other handcrafts, this one has fewer and fewer experienced practitioners.

A ‘live edge’ slab or top is a plank of wood that is sawed and/or milled on just 2 faces; the sides are left wild, or just as they were in the tree – facing the outside. Oftentimes, bark is purposely left on those edges to ‘tell the tale’ with even more graphic emphasis.

‘Artisan glass’ is a broad category that includes any glass formed, slumped or blown that is made using ‘by hand’ processes. Stained glass also falls into this group.

My job, first, was to generate a design that integrated the 3 disparate materials that would make them parts of the whole. The steel, the most structural component, needed to convey a feeling of strength, support, simplicity and yet agility. Its dimensions did not need to be overpowering to convey this; in fact, because of its inherent strength, the thickness of steel parts can be fairly minimal, say, compared to wood. Playing a ‘supporting’ role, the wrought iron should be in the background and not be too self-conscious in the overall design, potentially upstaging the wood which would have the star role in this cast. The choice of the wood was driven, first, by what’s available milled with a slab edge and second, by how its color and grain would ‘play’ with the qualities of the steel/wrought iron. I chose claro walnut because of its rich hue, figured grain characteristics and excellent carving qualities – I’d thought of a way to lend the wood a feeling of being ‘hand-wrought’ like the steel by chip carving the end of the slab:

Lastly, I designed ‘twists’ in steel legs to give them a sense of fluidity or movement which runs contrary to the way steel is usually perceived.

Solving the glass ‘problem’ was not so easy. Glass, like metal, is a ‘cold’ material as opposed to wood which is ‘warm’. Cold materials feel cold to the touch because they are heat sinks; that is, they siphon heat off of the body. I went through many samples of hand made glass seeking one that played with the wood rather than overpowered it and also conveyed a feeling of more warmth than ‘coolth’. Finally, almost accidentally, I hit upon a variety of stained glass that both complemented and mirrored the figure in the claro walnut and was still translucent. At the same time, its color played off of the wine bottles in the adjacent racks. Bingo:

All in all, this project, through a process of discovery, achieved a design resolution based upon sensitivity to the materials’ qualities, then highlighting their strengths and harnessing the design to a coherent expression of those qualities and how they worked together. There is a resulting sense of wholeness and integrity that results from such a respect for the materials and using the ensuing design as a vehicle to showcase their qualities rather than the other way around.



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