In recent times, furniture designers are reuniting with nature’s willful verve by turning to trees for inspiration, while collectors are enticed by the prospect of bringing the forest indoors, writes FUNKE OSAE-BROWN.
As an architect, Tunde Afonja was in London last Spring to witness the latest developments in the field of architecture. He was amazed by what he saw. He was led into rare construction of large-scale installations in distinctive idiom. He realised that architecture was no longer in the conventional form, as he had drawn designs that were wholly immersing.
One of the unique designs that amazed him was that of Chinese architect, Li Xiaodong, who constructed a maze-like series of spaces with walls made of thin branches. This was similar to an installation the Chinese architect once created, which was clad entirely in firewood. It was inspired by the woodpiles outside each home, including gestures to the surrounding forest.
Here, at the Royal Academy of London, Afonja said he was simply enveloped by nature with its soothing effect. Trees have been the basis of architecture and furniture design from the earliest times. It is not a surprise therefore that modern and contemporary architectural designs are seeking to re-engage wood. The new direction for furniture makers is the raw use of trees, including a sophisticated use of timber. Contemporary designs include the use of tree branches (including the bark) to create furniture with knobbly irregularity, offering a poetic contrast to their geometric context. These are statement pieces that offer comforting enclosure. They are not claustrophobic as the spaces between the branches give a glimpse of freedom.
Some of the latest designs have involved the use of living plant instead of their machined derivatives. While some others include the use of branches straight from the tree, others the casting and modelling trees and roots, or even taking highly processed wood and using different means to give it a new life inspired by trees.
This new trend is making consumers become aware of the soothing nature of trees, which offers comfort away from a world where they are increasingly hemmed in by steel and concrete in their homes. They now long for that exclusive world where nature interplays with the wayward vigour of root and branch.
“Anyone who is familiar with latest trends in architecture,” says Afonja, “will agree with me that so many things are changing hands. I mean there are interesting designs that are amorous, making the consumer find new reasons to fall in love with wood again. Furniture is no longer about steel. There are very interesting installation pieces made of tree branches.”
Some of these new designs, Afonja observes, evoke memory of romanticism. According to him, some of the foreign furniture makers who share this new ideology is the Dutch company, Studio Floris Wubben. “Studio Floris Wubben shares this romanticism but in a different way. They call their nature range, Tolkienish aesthetic. Their brand promise is to enable furniture and nature to co-operate together in ultimate harmony.”
In addition, Afonja says British designer, Max Lamb, is one of the international brands making interesting pieces. “He works with many diverse materials,” he says. “His designs are influenced by his childhood days growing up in the countryside in Cornwall and Yorkshire. Some of his designs explore both house and gardens for inspiration. One of his designs is inspired by a yew tree that had been felled to make way for excavations of an underground chimney and was allowed to take away eight logs.”
Locally, however, Bolaji Dada, a furniture maker, says Nigerian furniture makers have always fancied working with wood, but not in an engaging way that their foreign counterparts do. “We work with wood,” he explains, “but not with tree branches. Tree branches are common with carpenters who work in the villages, but it is not a design that has really engaged the attention of the consumers in the cities.”
Afonja says the idea of modelling from nature is hard. To him, there is a plethora of examples. “Mattia Bonetti, a glamorous Swiss-born designer, produced a new, nature-themed collection that includes a sculptural side table he named ‘Roots’ and a standing lamp. Nature has always been a source of his works than a direct copy of nature; his designs are inspired by the formal tension between an irregular, organic inner shape and a smooth outer skin.”
For many of these designs, observes Toun Adeniyi, a consumer, the source may be primitive but the treatment is very sophisticated. “Some of the foreign designs evoke pure emotion,” explains Adeniyi. “You cannot help but feel that pure emotion when confronted with the latest creation by internationally renowned designers. I just collected a piece made by Irish designer, Joseph Walsh, the last time I was in London. He was commissioned for an exhibition at the New Art Centre, Salisbury.” Adeniyi says she finds his piece, ‘Walsh’s Magnus Celestii’ with its flying shelf very interesting. For her, the piece is a genius demonstration of the sculptural potential of Walsh’s technique.
In addition, she says Walsh pieces are dramatic, sophisticated in that they retain nature’s original energy. “There is this extraordinary desk that stands on one foot, I saw at the exhibition,” says Adeniyi, “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.”
According to her, 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.
And so, contemporary home furniture makers are producing work that digs deeply and imaginatively, into its mysterious origins.