the invisible store of happiness, American Hardwood Export Council, January – May 2015

Photography by Jon Cardwell and Petr Krejci.

Photography by Jon Cardwell and Petr Krejci.

In early 2015, Katie Treggiden was commissioned by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) to follow the process of thinking, designing, making and informing that underpinned The Invisible Store of Happiness, shadowing Sebastian Cox and Laura Ellen Bacon as they worked. As a result, she wrote a series of four essays that were used across printed and online materials produced for the project. All copy as provided to the client.

Thinking

Furniture designer Sebastian Cox is passionate about English coppiced hazel. So he’s perhaps not the obvious choice for the American Export Hardwood Council (AHEC)’s installation for Clerkenwell Design Week. But then AHEC aren’t known for making obvious choices. Their installation for the 2013 London Design Festival – designed by dRMM as an investigation into the structural properties of hardwood - was an Esher-inspired Endless Stair.

What excites Cox about coppiced hazel is its sustainability. Coppicing involves felling trees every 14 years. They regrow and, as long as they are coppiced, will never die of old age. But it’s also about giving value to an underused resource. One fourteenth of the wood is cut every year, so there are always trees at every stage of regrowth. British woodlands were managed in this way for thousands of years, so whole ecosystems of plants, insects and birds evolved to live in these unique habitats. A decline in coppicing due to the falling value of the timber is threatening these species. “My motivation is putting money back into the woods by making objects that people want to buy,” said Cox.

Having worked as a maker for Benchmark on AHEC’s Out of the Woods project in 2012, Cox was one of ten young designers asked to take part in AHEC’s Wishlist project for the 2014 London Design Festival. He was commissioned to make a ‘cocoon-like desk’ for Sir Terence Conran. First, he needed to be convinced of the environmental impact of importing wood. It turns out that the carbon footprint of moving wood 6,000 miles by ship is equivalent to moving it 600 miles by road, so sourcing wood from the East coast of America is comparable to getting it from Scotland. Given that Europe will never be self-sufficient in hardwood, even with declines in manufacturing, it made sense. And the American hardwood forests are so vast that the timber used for the entire Wishlist project was replaced in less than two seconds. The next thing Cox wanted to know was which timbers are currently underused. Design is subject to trends like anything else, but when it comes to wood it’s important to use what nature provides. The current fashion for white oak and walnut is resulting in imbalanced demand. Cox chose to work with red oak and cherry and made Conran’s desk with a carbon footprint one third that of an iPhone 6.

The challenge for the Clerkenwell Design Week installation is to raise the profile of maple and cherry, both beautiful and yet underappreciated American hardwoods, and to create a three-dimensional form to communicate the environmental benefits of using them. To meet this challenge, Cox is collaborating with artist Laura Ellen Bacon, known for abstract willow sculptures - another surprising choice. The two couldn’t be more different, illustrated by the fact that Cox draws with a 2H pencil for accuracy, while Bacon sketches with a 6B for complete freedom, but as David Venables AHEC’s Marketing Director explains, “She turns the whole thing on its head – she comes at this from a completely different angle, but with the same passion.”

AHEC want to challenge perceptions of hardwood, both as a material and as a sustainable and growing resource. With an installation in one of Clerkenwell Design Week’s most important locations – the archway at the Order of Saint John – created by two such passionate and interesting designers, it’s difficult to see how they can fail.

Designing

Laura Ellen Bacon is a sculptor. Sebastian Cox is a furniture designer. Laura sketches in 6B pencil. Sebastian uses a 2H, or a computer. For Laura, the form and scale of a piece dictate the material. Sebastian designs objects that make best use of his material. Laura’s creative process starts with the space she’s designing for. Sebastian rarely knows where his work will end up. Laura works with her hands, often using willow because of how it feels in her fingers. Sebastian uses machines, and even when he’s making by hand there’s a tool between his hands and the wood.

What these two very different designers do have in common is a love of wood, and a love of making. “Every maker derives such a lot of joy from the making process,” says Laura. “That shows in your work – it has a fullness to it. Everything you make has an invisible store of happiness hidden inside it. We poured over ideas for months, but in the end that’s what it came down to.” So the seed for the Invisible Store of Happiness was sown.

Working together to turn that seed of an idea into three-dimensional form has tested them, challenged them, driven them. But the design process has always come back to a love of making things out of wood. Together, they have been able to look at American hardwood in a completely new way.

“To work with Laura, I needed to reduce the material from great lumps of hardwood to something that could be woven,” said Sebastian. “The obvious way would have been to cut it into strips, but I wanted to do something more interesting, more efficient, more beautiful.” Using a spindle-moulder and a series of cutters, straight lengths of maple are partially split into ribbons, which are then soaked in water overnight creating something more akin to the willow Laura is used to working with. “Kiln dried American hardwood is usually used for flooring or furniture, it’s a very solid thing, so we’re reimagining how it can be used,” says Sebastian.

And that’s not all they’re planning to do with it. “We want fluidity in parts and solidity in others,” says Laura. “We want some sort of disciplined structure in there. It will be clearly defined and show strength and yet also have this organic aspect to it.”

But for all their talk, the honest truth is that they don’t yet know what it will be. There are sketches (Laura), CAD renderings (Sebastian) and 1:1 plywood models, but until the wood comes off the boat from America, they simply don’t know what they’ll have to work with. “We still don’t know what’s going to arrive in that container, which is quite exciting,” says Sebastian, “We have to design this thing to make sure it will work with whatever lengths, whatever grades of timber arrive. And that is an important point. Of all the wood that grows in the forest, you can’t only take the sweet stuff – you’ve got to use some sap wood, some shorter lengths, some not so straight bits.”

What is very clear is their vision: “As you approach it, it will feel very constructed, very ‘made’, almost architectural,” says Laura. “But as you go past it, you’ll get tantalising glimpses of the interior. Inside, gorgeous surges of organic wood will feel like they’re springing from the structure. It will be deeply textural, like standing in seaweed in a flowing river. You will get the chance to just stand for a moment and breathe it in.”

I for one can’t wait.

Making

They say it takes a village, and despite Sebastian Cox and Laura Ellen Bacon being the lead designers on the Invisible Store of Happiness project, they’re by no means the only people making it happen.

“Everybody ready?” Cox asks. “Ready” replies Jo Weaden. “Ready,” says George Mead. “Ready,” yell Becky McGowan, Kate Finlay and Jack Huberry in unison. “Laura?” he prompts. “Ready,” she replies.

Cox pops open a small door and pulls a 2.4m length of steaming hot cherry wood onto his shoulder, moving quickly towards his team. Together they position it into the jig. “One, two, three,” says Cox and they bend the now pliable wood around a specially made form. Within a matter of seconds G-clamps are holding it in place as it starts to cool.

These lengths of steam-bent cherry wood, linked together with 11 different scarf joints, will form the horizontal structure of the installation AHEC have commissioned Cox and Bacon to make for the archway at the Order of Saint John during Clerkenwell Design Week. They will be fixed to uprights using simple mortise and tenon joints.

Keen to work with whatever the forest provided, the designers didn’t know what they would be getting until the wood arrived. “It was hugely exciting,” said Cox. “None of it is FAS [first and second] grade wood, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just aesthetic – it’s about standardising materials, but why would you want wood to look uniform? It’s a plant. To see these flecks, cells and knots is massively exciting. I never expected it to look like this.” Four end panels will showcase the hardwood in all its flawed beauty – knots, cracks and sap wood in the cherry and the rippled growth-lines of the ‘curly’ maple.

The timber is cut into straight lengths on a table saw, then planed and ‘thicknessed,’ resulting in consistent lengths with sides at 90 degrees to each other. It takes two weeks just to produce the raw material the team are working with. And every time a machine is switched on, so is a stopwatch. Data sheets list the amount of CO2 used by each machine per hour, enabling the team to calculate the total carbon cost of the project. “I can’t wait to meet the AHEC lifecycle analysis team to review the data,” says Cox, visibly excited.

The timber for the interior ‘swathes’ is cut using a spindle-moulder and a stack of spinning circular blades. Slots are cut parallel to the length of the timber, resulting in pliable wooden ribbons attached to the uncut end.

The ribbons are soaked in water to mimic the green wood traditionally used for steam bending, and steamed to make them flexible enough to shape by hand. “They’re really nice, and coincidentally feel quite similar to the willow I often work with,” says Bacon. The wood will be attached to the frame with a mortise and tenon joint at one end and anchored into slots in the structure at the other. “I want to twist and flex each one as much as I can without breaking it,” she says. “Some won’t bend very far at all and some will bend much further – creating a real sense of volume and movement.”

The installation will be built in the workshop, before being divided into three pieces for transport to Clerkenwell, where it will be reassembled.

“Seb, can we try a really long one?” Weaden asks eagerly, returning to the steam bending. “Yes, why not,” comes the reply and they’re off again. It really does take a village. 

Informing

On 19 May 2015, the Invisible Store of Happiness by Sebastian Cox and Laura Ellen Bacon will be installed in the archway of Order of Saint John in Clerkenwell, and after months of thinking, designing and making, the project will be complete.

But in some ways, this is just the beginning. The role of the installation, in the words of AHEC’s marketing director David Venables, is to “inform the debate,” which for David is more about provoking questions than providing answers. “It should make people think: ‘How did they do that?’ or ‘What on earth is this?,’ he said. “I love it because I can already hear all these questions: ‘How long is it going to be here for?’ ‘What sort wood is that?’ and ‘Who made this?’”

“I don’t think my job is to make people buy more American hardwood,” he said. “I think my job is to create an environment where people are choosing to use American hardwood because of a better understanding of the materials.” That understanding encompasses everything from craftsmanship to environmental concerns.

“One of the debates we’re addressing is about the seriousness of craftsmanship and what happens when you put two amazing craftspeople together,” he said. “Our job was to pick the right people, put our trust in them and let the process happen. Creating is about relationships and every time we do one of these projects, we learn more about that collaborative process. I think that’s very valuable.”

The other element of craftsmanship was about pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible with wood. “Sebastian and Laura were continuously improvising,” said David. “It’s been an on-going experiment. One of the challenges for wood right now is embracing innovation and we’re learning all the time. We could write a manual on steam-bending hardwood as an outcome of this project.”

The two designers have been sharing their learnings throughout the process, not just with AHEC, but with a team of interns and students. There’s a type of insight you can only gain by doing something yourself – a ‘hand’ understanding rather than a ‘head’ understanding, and it’s one Sebastian and Laura are keen to share with whoever is interested enough to lend a hand.

And finally, there’s the environmental impact, which is where American hardwood really comes up trumps. “I’m a marketing guy so I look for advantages,” said David. “We’ve got some brilliant timbers that you can make efficient structures out of, that you know are affordable and there in the long term.” The hardwood forests in America are so vast that the wood used in the Invisible Store of Happiness will have been replaced in the time it takes to walk from one end to the other. The whole project has undergone a formal process of environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and the carbon footprint of the whole structure, on a cradle to grave basis, is just 173kg CO2 equivalent – that’s less than an iPad Air 2.

“When we started this project, I had no idea quite what we would end up with,” said David. “But I knew one thing for sure, when we got in under that arch, it would create a buzz. People are going to want to touch it, regardless of whether they love it, hate it or simply don’t understand it. Emotion is good, positive or negative, because it means people are thinking about it, and that’s all I want them to do: If people are thinking about what we’ve done then this thing has immense value.”

These essay was written for the American Hardwood Export Council. You can also read them here.