Should Scandinavian furniture design diversify its material choices?

The American Hardwood Export Council commissioned emerging designers to work with new timbers to challenge the aesthetics and supply chains of furniture design.

Whether it’s your weekly grocery shop or the clothes you wear, we have all heard that buying local is better. It is no surprise then, that most Scandinavian designers source their wood from Danish, Norwegian and Finnish forests, to decrease the carbon footprint of their furniture pieces.

Before the Russia-Ukraine war, Europe got 8.5 million metres cubed of softwood lumber from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, according to forest industry consulting firm Wood Resources International LLC. Softwood exported from these countries accounted for almost ten percent of the Europe’s total demand in 2021.

Timber supply chains have altered to fill this gap. For example, in March 2022, Glasgow timber merchant Paterson Timber switched to Scandinavian forests as a solution when its Eastern supply chain ran dry. This sudden increase in demand meant the company’s new supply mill in Finland had to significantly increase cost from April 2022. IKEA also switched to using more wood from Sweden and the Baltics to avoid sourcing it from Russia and Belarus.

With the increase in cost and demand for Scandinavian wood, furniture designers might be better off looking over the Atlantic for a sustainable alternative, argues the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC).

Why American hardwood?

Credit: AHEC

The first question on everyone’s mind is: how can importing American hardwoods to Europe be sustainable? AHEC European director David Venables claims that “if you’re moving it by ship around the world”, it’s actually more sustainable than if it was being driven around the continent in trucks.

“Europe has never been self-sufficient in hardwood”, he says, as European forests comprise mostly softwood trees, meaning it has usually fallen on Russia to provide hardwood. On the contrary, Venables claims that America has “surplus”.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s 2017 report revealed that hardwood-softwood mixed forests in America cover 339,709 acres, according to AHEC. This is more than five times the total land area of the UK or more than the combined land area of Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Credit: AHEC

Despite the fact that the Eastern US hardwood forests were deforested almost entirely in the 1800s during the industrial revolution, much of the next century was spent trying to rebuild them when the “conservationist president” Theodore Roosevelt came into power and the first forestry schools were formed.

“Now you can fly over states like Pennsylvania and Virginia and all you’ll see is trees for hours,” says Venables.

He explains that many of the forests have been family-owned for generations and are managed using “selection harvesting” methods rather than clear-felling. The former is when most or all trees in an area are uniformly cut down, whereas the latter involves cutting down small sections of mature trees, allowing light to get to the forest floor so new seedlings can grow. Selection harvesting also means that forests can grow on longer rotations, with only a few trees per hectare being harvested.

“Changing the pattern of what we consume”

Credit: AHEC

For its latest venture in promoting American hardwood, the AHEC commissioned three young, female Scandinavian designers to create furniture pieces using American Red Oak, American Maple and American Cherry. The final pieces made their debut at the Three exhibition at Copenhagen’s 3 Days of Design festival.

AHEC has been doing projects around these three timbers for around four years but since “the message doesn’t always get in”, Venables says it will continue to promote them in diverse ways. He believes that these three woods can contribute to “commercially changing the pattern of what we consume”.

Even with the pressures on the European timber market, he says that American hardwood is “not really used in Europe at all” as softwood is generally favoured for building and hardwoods like oak and walnut are used for products. The three chosen timbers “have already proven themselves in the past”, says Venables. “It’s about reintroducing them and expanding consumer choice.”

Entry to Three exhibition. Credit: Benjamin Lund

AHEC came to 3 Days of Design for the first time last year but Venables has been visiting Denmark for over two decades. “So much of the narrative has shifted to Milan and London but design and the craft of wood is infused in the culture of Nordic countries,” he explains.

He describes the 3 Days of Design exhibition as “a great seed bed for starting a conversation, because Nordic designers and brands are globally influential”.

Venables met one of the participating designers, Norwegian Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng, last year in Milan and says he was “blown away by her freshness and narrative around her materials”. He admits that while he has done a lot of work with young designers in Spain and Germany, very few of them were makers, whereas Øfstedal Eng “understood the whole journey, from the local trees she worked with to the unique outcomes”.

Then AHEC set out to find other young designers with similar philosophies and skills. Although having all female designers was not part of the initial plan, Venables says AHEC are “pleased to be making a statement in the timber and craft world that is still very male dominated”.

“Tactile and visual qualities of wood”

Credit: Benjamin Lund

Swedish furniture designer Pia Högman was assigned American Red Oak, which she described as being “smelly” with “big grains and pores”. Despite it having a bad reputation as is it harder to work with and can splint when using the wrong tools, Högman says it is “a great recipient for wood staining and treatments”. Its deep pores also mean it can be glued together and doesn’t require nails or screws.

Högman’s collection of five chairs – which she calls The Cured Series – aims to “enhance the tactile and visual qualities of the wood” using different methods.

Högman at work. Credit: Benjamin Lund

In her search for local, sustainable treatment methods, Högman says she ended up working with linseed oil, from a high pigmented blue colour, to a rich red treated with gloss to look like “a candied apple”. Another chair has been hard waxed and then wiped with a dark linseed colour, which soaks into the pores of the wood, creating a “denim” effect, she adds. The chair with the most traditionally “wooden” look was treated using a historic method called ammonia smoking, during which fumes from ammonia darken the oak, making it look aged.

The chair’s form is based off a traditional Swedish wooden dining chair that Högman has in her own home and is comfortable to sit in for long periods of time. “I think often the user experience is lost when it comes to furniture” because people “focus so much on the visuality of the project, but it’s important to think about purpose,” says Högman.

She explains that most Scandinavian designers “have a lot of love” for the Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish forests and “don’t look at using other materials”. This project gave her the opportunity to show that there are “more sustainable options, especially in light of the wood shortages in Europe last year”, Högman adds.

“Scandinavian design doesn’t have to be white, grey or black”

Credit: Benjamin Lund

Since she entered the industry in 2017, Danish furniture designer Anne Brandhøj has been working with wood. Curiosity led her to visit a sawmill where she could see what happened to the wood before it landed in her workshop, which is when she found that a lot of it is discarded because of knots, fungus and other imperfections.

Brandhøj says she then set out to learn how to cut down trees so she could be part of the making process from start to finish and challenge “really minimalistic” Scandinavian design tropes by incorporating so-called imperfections into her pieces.

Brandhøj at work. Credit: Benjamin Lund

Brandhøj was assigned American Cherry to work with for the AHEC project. She says that because cherry has “a lot of sugar in it”, it burns easily so “you have to use the exact speed and move it in the correct way” to avoid damaging it. The furniture pieces feature abstract forms, which Brandhøj cut with a router before rounding the edges and gluing the planks together.

“Everything is in oak and I find it so boring”, she says, adding that she is unsure why American Cherry isn’t more popular. “There could be a place for cherry in Scandinavian design because people are more into warmer colours now. It doesn’t have to be white, grey or black,” Brandhøj explains.

“Raw, natural aesthetic”

Credit: Benjamin Lund

Norwegian multidisciplinary designer and sculptor Anna Maria Øfstedal Eng’s work walks the line between art and sculptural, functional furniture. She does everything herself throughout the making process, shaping her furniture with chainsaw discs.

Øfstedal Eng says she is known for her “organic shape language” which she translated into the project when working with American Maple. The material was “physically challenging” to work with, she says, especially when hand carving and sanding.

“The wood grains in American Maple are just really fascinating and mesmerising to watch when you’re shaping it,” Øfstedal Eng adds.

Øfstedal Eng at work. Credit: Benjamin Lund

Her pieces comprise two hand-carved stools that showcase the wood’s “aesthetic expression” and a “more functional” shelf for which a CNC router was used to create a flat surface, Øfstedal Eng explains. She says that she chose not to treat the wood to show “the raw, natural aesthetic” and, like Brandhøj, she opted to keep in the “flaws”.

“American Maple is a beautiful wood and I would definitely work with it again,” she adds.

The three designers plan to showcase the furniture pieces again together in future exhibitions, though they have yet to confirm where.



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