This spring, the Royal Academy organised an exhibition entitled Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Architects were invited to transform visitors’ experiences of its 19th-century galleries through the construction of large-scale installations, each in their distinctive idiom. Unlike a conventional architecture exhibition, where it’s difficult to imagine oneself inside drawn plans or small-scale models, here the designs were wholly immersing. Perhaps the most thoroughgoing was that of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong, who constructed a maze-like series of spaces with walls made of thin branches. It recalled a library Li Xiaodong created in Jiaojiehe village, north of Beijing, which is clad entirely in firewood; it is inspired by the woodpiles outside each home and gestures to the surrounding forest. In the Royal Academy, under Sydney Smirke’s neoclassical ceilings, visitors were soothed, enveloped by nature. The branches – bark and all – carried a memory of sap and growth, sun and rain. Their knobbly irregularity offered a poetic contrast to their geometric context, and while the tree walls offered a comforting enclosure, they were not claustrophobic, because the spaces between the branches gave a glimpse of freedom. Li Xiaodong’s installation was like a sophisticated child’s den on a grown-up scale, in which the thrill of intimacy with nature was offset by precise construction – to keep out wolves and weather.
Trees have been the basis of architecture and furniture design from the time when humankind first abandoned its caves. But ever since the Ancient Greeks began to replace Minoan tree trunks with stone columns, the direction of progress has tended to be away from the raw use of trees towards the sophisticated use of timber – planed boards, beams and planks. Yet part of us, our inner woodsman perhaps, the aspect of our personality unleashed when we climb a tree or chop a log, still carries a candle for the tree itself. Or maybe the simple fact is that as we live increasingly hemmed in by steel and concrete – by the hard edges of the city – we long for the relief of organic life’s idiosyncrasies: a reconnection with the wayward vigour of root and branch. Recently, a number of designers have responded to this yen we feel for the living plant, rather than its machined derivatives. Some have responded directly, like Li Xiaodong, using branches straight from the tree. Others have responded metaphorically, casting or modelling trees and roots, or even taking highly processed wood and using different means to give it a new life inspired by trees.
The renowned Italian architect and designer Andrea Branzi, who was born in Florence in 1938, but lives and works in Milan, offers a modernist alliance between birch trees and metal. A partner in the influential radical-design group Archizoom Associati, from 1964 to 1974, in 1981 he joined the Memphis group, where his creations, often mixing wood and metal, took an exuberant and colourful turn. More recently, for an exhibition in Paris in 2012 with Carpenters Workshop Gallery, he introduced a series of sleek cabinets, shelf units and console tables called Tree 1, 2, 3 and so on, all in editions of 12 (price on request), that combine a tactile anodised aluminium with sections of silver birch, the characteristic bark still on them. Formally, these pieces are a delight, the rigid monochrome geometry of the metal playing against the patterned vitality of the tree. But there is also something surreal about the way these highly romantic trees boldly invade this accomplished minimalist furniture. Branzi, a writer as well as a designer, wrote of the pieces at the time: “I have always been fascinated by these parts of nature that continue to give off a grand, expressive force, more powerful when they are combined with modern, perfect and industrial materials. They become mysterious, always diverse, unique... and somewhat sacred presences.”
The young Dutch company Studio Floris Wubben shares this romanticism, though with a very different, Tolkienish aesthetic. Its ambition is “to enable furniture and nature to co-operate together in ultimate harmony... As a consequence, the living qualities of nature will have a constant influence on our projects.” For the dramatic Tree Fungus, Wubben worked with the sculptor Bauke Fokkema to create a room separator from a divided tree that was joined by a futuristic cast-polyurethane “fungus” (€10,000). This piece was shown last year at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, as part of an exhibition called Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design.
The British designer Max Lamb also works with many diverse materials. He grew up in the countryside in Cornwall and Yorkshire, where his grandfather had a farm: “My first memory of the farm was seeing my grandfather and his workmen constructing a treehouse in one of his ash trees,” he says. In 2013, the curator Sarah Griffin invited him to create some new work for the Modern Makers exhibition at Chatsworth. Exploring both house and gardens for inspiration, he came across a yew tree that had been felled to make way for excavations of an underground chimney and was allowed to take away eight logs. “I was fascinated to learn about yew – how it was synonymous with Britain and used for making bows that were sold all over Europe.” He was also drawn to the material itself: “It has very contrasting colours between the [red] heartwood and the [pale] sapwood. The sapwood is alive – it represents 10 years of growth.” Equally inspired by the marble plinths he observed in the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth, Lamb decided to make a series of furniture from the logs: basically “plinths for people” (£8,400 for a set of five), working minimally with the wood to create simple, clean forms with the vivid contrasts of bark, heartwood and sapwood visible on the surface. He then waxed them top and bottom to produce an effect like highly figured marble. The complex conceptual play of nature and culture belies the apparent simplicity of their origin.
Another child of the woods is the German designer Valentin Loellmann. Brought up in a family of artists in Germany, he now lives and works near Maastricht in the Netherlands. In 2012, he produced two beautiful series of work inspired by the woods around his house: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. The formerincludes various handmade tables (from €9,000), stools (from €1,500) and benches (from €2,000), all with oak tops and legs made from hazel branches, as well as shelves (from €8,000, made to order). What is remarkable is the smoothness of the finish – all hard edges have been removed, joins blended with much sanding and polishing, and the pieces then burnt and treated with wax. Despite the intricacy of the process, each work retains a natural warmth and sensitivity. Galerie Gosserez in Paris, which exhibited the collection, said the aim was “to open up a space where design might not only mould nature, but be moulded by it”. Gallerist Marie-Bérangère Gosserez reports that Loellmann, who sources all the materials from the woods around his house, comes to Paris only reluctantly. “There are too many people, too much noise – he must go back to his forest,” she says. For his second series, Spring/Summer, which includes a desk (€16,000) and stool (€3,000), he has retained the black burnished-oak top, but added coppered-steel or bronze legs to provide a contrast of warm and cold materials. The console (€24,000) from this range, exhibited at PAD London last autumn, won the fair’s Best Contemporary Design award.
The idea of modelling from nature is hardly new – according to legend, in 827 AD Caliph al-Ma’mun had a silver and gold tree in his palace in Baghdad, complete with metal birds that sang, and just think of all that imitative 18th-century tableware. Currently, there’s a plethora of examples. The glamorous and inventive Swiss-born designer Mattia Bonetti produced a new, nature-themed collection for David Gill, which includes a sculptural side table entitled Roots (price on request) and a standing lamp (price on request). “Nature has always been a leitmotif in my work,” explains Bonetti. Rather than a direct copy of nature, however, his pieces are inspired by the formal tension between an irregular, organic inner shape and a smooth outer skin. Although the source is primitive, he says, “the treatment is very sophisticated”.
Emerging Australian designer Charles Trevelyan, at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, is similarly interested in the “interplay between structure and surface”. His latest work includes a series of limited-edition, tree‑inspired pieces, including the almost animate, patinated-bronze table, Supine (from €40,000), and the BiPartite lamp (from €10,000). Portuguese design company Ginger & Jagger has cast branches in different metals for its Earth to Earth collection, which includes the Magnolia sideboard (from €10,720), Fig Tree console (from €4,870) and Rosebush dining table (from €13,530).
Meanwhile, the Carpenters Workshop Gallery also shows the stylings of French designer Vincent Dubourg, including his branch-inspired chairs, Buisson Aluminium (about €75,000) and Deambule (from €15,000). Of his relationship with branches – cast in steel, aluminium or bronze – he once said it is like “each trying to tame the other: a young branch, inflexible, me, demanding. And this led us to find a harmonious whole.” On a more humorous note, the maverick artist-designer Richard Woods, who has transformed art dealer Michael Hue-Williams’s country pad for an exhibition entitled Country Life, has created a series of large ceramic tree- trunk vases in cheerful colours (price on request).
And finally, there are two projects where the tree as idea, rather than its literal depiction, is predominant. The first is French designer-maker Zoé Ouvrier, represented by Gallery Fumi in London, who has produced a series of remarkable folded screens (from £18,000) made from painted plywood, onto which she has then painstakingly engraved the most vivid and beautiful trees. As she puts it, her wish is to take plywood, the most banal of industrially produced materials, and “restore to it something of its sublime origin, the tree”. The screen is effectively a wood engraving on a vast scale – but rather than being used to create art prints, it is the artwork itself – and every screen is different. In another reversal, it is the gouges into the plywood, the carving out of the wood that release the tree. Ouvrier reports the strong emotion she felt at the idea of providing a space of privacy, as if within a forest, for someone to undress.
It is pure emotion, too, that one feels when confronted with the latest creation by internationally renowned Irish designer, Joseph Walsh. Commissioned for an exhibition curated by Sarah Griffin at the New Art Centre, Salisbury, Walsh’s Magnus Celestii (€234,000), with its flying shelf, is a virtuoso demonstration of the sculptural potential of his technique. A country boy from Cork, who taught himself to make furniture through experimentation, Walsh closely guards his method of splitting ash wood, working with its flexibility to create dramatic, sophisticated pieces that retain nature’s original energy. This extraordinary desk that stands on one foot, with its left side spiralling upwards into the ceiling, is created from one tree, with the beautiful markings of the wood displayed to powerful effect. The dynamism of that single plant is still present, even though the wood has been precisely engineered. The piece almost carries the tree to its own natural apotheosis, evoking not only its insistent reaching upwards in life, but also the circles of smoke that would arise from a fire created from it, once dead. Walsh’s most famous series of furniture is entitled Enignum – a combination of the Latin words enigma (mystery) and lignum (wood). As with all these designers, by experimenting with his material, he produces work that digs deeply, and imaginatively, into its mysterious origins.