The pinkish cube of timber in Gianni Cantarutti’s hand looks identical to a dozen others in his encyclopedic collection of samples. “How do we tell if this is Brazilian rosewood?” he asks the group of timber fanciers gathered at his Slow Wood workshop in Milan. “To identify this wood, you have to do something curious,” he says, and licks the little block. “I leave the enzymes of the saliva on the wood, so the delicate fragrance will come out and I can smell the right perfume, and I can be 100 per cent sure it’s the wood I’m looking for.” He inhales, and declares: “That’s it. Dalbergia nigra.”
After 30 years in the timber business, Cantarutti, a self-confessed “woods and forests lover”, has built up a xylotheque, or wood library, of 2,000 species, drawn from every point on the globe. Each specimen he shows us delights him, from the extravagantly figured Mexican Ziricote, to the snakewood from French Guiana (“Don’t lick the snakewood: it’s poisonous,” he jokes), and the angelim from Brazil, with its oddly evocative scent (“Horse sweat. English girls will recognise it”). He instructs his students: “Please write down that all the woods are nice. Like ‘top model’ Naomi Campbell, they are all top.” What leads him to deplore wood favouritism is the international furniture market’s focus on two timbers, oak and walnut, to the exclusion of a world of more interesting options. He co-founded Slow Wood, in 2014, with the aim of offering architects and designers a menu of exceptional and overlooked species. He presents them as precious ingredients, to be savoured. Timber as truffles.
Cantarutti’s sensual appreciation of timber has its roots in his travels in South America, in the 1980s. “I started in the Amazon basin, in Para state [northern Brazil]. I saw the beauty of the greenwoods. I had the opportunity to see the forest when the trees were still living and then after they were logged to produce timber. I smelt the fantastic fragrance of different woods. When you are in the process of transforming the wood into something finished, you have the chance to know it, not just its figures and colours but its smell.”
But, working in such delicate ecosystems, isn’t a xylophile such as Cantarutti concerned about sustainability? He is, of course, and emphasises that he sources cautiously and frugally. There is never an excuse to use endangered species, he says: “Nowadays, there is no mahogany exported from Cuba. But, with our knowledge, we know it’s possible to collect sustainable mahogany from the other Caribbean islands, in small quantities. Ebony, as well… people think it’s disappearing; some species are threatened, but others you can find – in Gabon, for example, though not in abundance. Sometimes, however, we receive a request to make a whole parquet floor in a very rare wood, and we will say no. We have woods of a similar appearance and beauty, and we can find a solution with another beautiful species, without doing any damage.” Two months ago Slow Wood was awarded a Forest Stewardship Council certificate in recognition of its green credentials.
Italians do not hold the monopoly on wood worship. Sean Sutcliffe is a prominent British xylophile and co-founder (with Sir Terence Conran) of Benchmark, a studio-workshop whose craftsmanship is in demand from A-listers, architects and artists such as Martin Creed. Sutcliffe’s woodshed houses a collection built up over three decades, full of curiosities, anomalies and native rarities. “I have a reputation in the UK for wanting to buy anything unusual, so I often receive a call: “Sean, I’ve got an amazing blistered elm! Sean, there’s this fabulous ripple sycamore!” Ripple sycamore, he explains, is the ghostly pale-figured timber usually seen on the back of violins. “It’s a mutation, a standard sycamore that, at some point in its life, has had a shock, and you see this wave that goes across the grain. It looks like a three-dimensional ripple.” His greatest treasure is a haul of ancient timber, preserved in a field in East Anglia for centuries, and rediscovered eight years ago. “I got a message saying a farmer had snagged his plough on something interesting. I hotfooted it up to Cambridge and we pulled 37 bog oak logs out of the field.” Preserved from decay by being buried in boggy ground, starved of oxygen, the timber is treacly dark brown and has the qualities of a tropical hardwood. “We had it carbon dated and it’s 4,700 years old. It’s our rarest and most precious wood.” As such, he uses it sparingly.
Though walnut and oak (bog standard European oak, rather than bog oak) are the timbers most often requested by his clients, Sutcliffe is noticing the beginnings of a move towards greater diversity among directional designers such as minimalist architect John Pawson. “In [Pawson’s Cotswold] home, he is using elm – an extremely interesting choice,” says Sutcliffe. Traditionally, elm was for coffins and floorboards. It’s very underused and people have almost forgotten what it looks like. It’s got a really bold grain and is quite variable in colour. You open the doors and the house is like a jewel box inside, all lined in elm – floors, walls and furniture.”
The marquetry mavens at Linley are the people to go to for a more traditional take on jewelbox-like creations. The art of decorating the surface of a piece of furniture with shaped sections of veneer, the historic technique of marquetry, is now seeing a revival and finding new fans among Linley’s high-flying clients. “We designed a sample table for the shop, to show the veneers people can choose from. It was on the shop floor literally five minutes before someone wanted to buy it,” says Michael Noah, head of design. He recently designed a library table (from £45,000) for a US customer, featuring a map, with oceans in ripple sycamore and the countries picked out in different veneers. The client had requested “something different, something special” and what he got was a mini xylotheque: among the 86 veneers used in the table are quilted maple, purple heart, sapele pommele, madrone, vavona, padouk, crown bubinga and amboyna. Uncommon as these timbers are, the skills for Linley-level marquetry are in even shorter supply; so the firm has launched a summer school that will include marquetry classes, and a visit to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s arboretum, to sow the seeds of xylophilia in its young scholars.
A handful of highly skilled bespoke furniture makers showcase the beauty of unusual timbers in their designs. Among the names the aficionados collect and commission are John Makepeace, whose Flow chests (£120,000) are each made from a single tree; Jonathan Field, crafter of a sublime ripple ash chair (£900); and James Ryan, whose designs for Edward Barnsley Workshop include a director’s desk (£26,000) in pippy yew and cocobolo. Outstanding creations are annually recognised and rewarded at the Wood Awards. Last year’s joint winning design in the Bespoke Furniture & Product category was Endgrain (bench, from £14,000; armchair, £15,000; desk, £14,000) by Raw Edges, made in part from artfully dyed blocks of jelutong, a little-known hardwood. This year, Hollow, a work by artist Katie Paterson, is a contender for the prize in the Small Projects category. A tree trunk-shaped installation, it features samples from 10,000 species.
While all insist on sustainability, a splinter group of extreme xylophiles prefer to use wood that is harvested without harming the tree. Sebastian Cox led the way, with his use of coppiced wood. Designer Russell Pinch, has created Twig (from £760), a series of sculptural cubes and vertical columns, in coppiced hazel, cut back as part of woodland management on the Bathurst Estate in Cirencester. “I am a tree hugger,” says Pinch. “What gives me the greatest pleasure in the world is looking at trees in full leaf. The beauty of Twig is you’re not hurting the tree at all. Coppicing is a part of making the forest happy.”
Indeed, endangered species such as mahogany and ebony aside, the forest is not just happy – it’s thriving. “There’s a huge wealth of timber out there, thousands and thousands of species,” says David Venables, European director of the American Hardwood Export Council. “We are slowly getting the message out. People are beginning to grasp the idea that the world’s forests aren’t disappearing by the second. Now we’ve got to excite them about individual species.” The abundant US natives Venables commends include hickory and pecan. “They are both from the Carya family – beautiful timbers that are sadly underused. The pecans live in the southern states, where it’s warmer, and the hickories you’ll find more in the east. The wood is a whole array of colours: a light, creamy sapwood or outer ring, then a quite rich, reddish brown with splashes and streaks.” Eminent Carya converts include award-winning architect Amanda Levete. “Ben Evans and Amanda Levete have an amazing hickory floor. It looks like a painting against the modern architecture of their home.” The message from the xylophiles is clear: be inspired by the rare and precious, and rediscover the overlooked.