Article by Noa Bronstein

I
N RECENT YEARS, concepts of greening, repurposing and using salvaged materials have not only guided the design of spaces and objects, but have entered the public vernacular in unprecedented ways. Our collective interest in responsible methods of production, fabrication and distribution has led to greater focus on the relationship between consumers, makers and socio-environmental accountability.

One recent example of new challenges sparking new solutions can be found in the work of several designers who have created functional pieces using wood from trees destroyed by the emerald ash borer. Since this non-native, invasive pest was discovered in Detroit in 2002, it has been attacking and killing ash trees in Ontario and parts of the United States.

It is estimated that the cost of removing and disposing of dead ash trees will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. In an effort to promote the productive use of this wood, IIDEX Canada partnered with Ideacious. com to develop IIDEX Woodshop, an exhibition of prototypes and market-ready projects by 15 Toronto-based makers. According to Jeremy Vandermeij, Director of Marketing and Sponsorship at IIDEX Canada, the project was launched in September 2013 as a way to increase awareness of resource instability, to reduce the number of ash trees headed for landfill and to promote innovative material re-use.

One of the more successful projects featured in IIDEX Woodshop is by Scott Eunson, whose practice operates at the intersection of art and design. Eunson’s Burned End-grain Ash Wall Panelling offers an investigation into themicroscopic structure of ash wood. In a rigorously detailed process, the physical properties of ash wood’s molecular structure are magnified, abstracted in low relief, modelled with 3-D software, and then cut into the wood itself using a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine. The resulting wall panel takes on the formal qualities of a photograph recast as sculptural object (see page 17), a leveraging of the documentary impulse to capture the inherent qualities of material and the com-plexities of this particular species of wood.

Pattern and form are leitmotifs that inform much of Eunson’s practice. Interested in the universality of pattern, whether related to mathematic, geological, molecular or celestial geometries, Eunson derives patterns from pre-existing systems and applies these towards the production of what he calls an “organic minimalism.” While he says that these reductive forms fail at fully exposing macro complexities, it is the exploration itself that becomes the productive venture.

What often makes Eunson’s works so seductive is the realization of a kind of illusionary landscape. The ash wall panelling is a prime example of this kind of approach, as the pattern takes on a kind of lunar landscape. It is both familiar and foreign. This topographical rendering is partially accomplished via the blackened surface, which is in fact a burnt finish. While seemingly at odds with the more archetypical, unfinished appearance of salvaged wood projects, the finish is completely natural and unsealed. According to Eunson, this makes the carbon essence of the material more accessible. The burnt surface exposes the wood’s continuities and invites a light refraction only afforded by the unique attributes of the fired ash. Engaging a myriad of senses and further contributing to the otherworldly quality, the wall panelling also has an acoustic component, as the grooves absorb sound.

Taking a narrative turn, Rob Southcott and Miles Keller’s projects for IIDEX Woodshop pay homage to Canadiana. Southcott was interested in exploring the wood’s region of origin, which in this particular instance was Fort York in Toronto. As Southcott says, “Fort York started as a concept that referenced the area from which the material was harvested, but also referenced the battle which Toronto’s ash population was confronted with.” The maquette-like fort recasts familiar iconography through the lens of a spatial reframing. This project seems a natural extension of Southcott’s orotund practice. Collapsing art and design, Southcott’s works are assemblages of formal representations that are at once pared-back and un-ornamented while imbued with humour, memory and nostalgia. Miles Keller also takes this approach by marrying two enduring design typologies—the snowshoe and the chaise longue. Shrinking down (the fort) and magnifying (the snowshoe) familiar structural typologies teases out a new dimension to these immediately recognizable forms, and in both instances the maker is able to exploit scale to expose nuances in the scaffold.

As with several other projects at IIDEX Woodshop, the design for Miles Keller’s Kona Recliner is derived from the properties of the wood. Through an intensive research process, Keller’s team learned that white ash is a particularly tough native wood with high shock absorbency, which makes it an ideal material for tools, baseball bats and hockey sticks. The cell structure of ash allows the wood to be bent easily by steam, a process that has yielded many familiar objects, including snowshoes. Wanting a challenge, the team decided to design a sizable object and the chaise provided an additional opportunity to consider ergonomics. Experimenting with the mesh seating resulted in a CNC-cut leather pattern that is akin to the snowshoe yet circumvents the derivative. Further exploring the historic trajectory of traditional ash wood products, Keller used traditional steam-bending techniques to produce the frame of the recliner; instead of using nails and screws, he designed a system of discrete wooden wedges and ramped slots that holds the leather in place.

Immediately recognizable in these projects is that the design, materiality and ideation operate in tangent. Perhaps this is the appeal of using repurposed resources, apart from the obvious “do good” value. Rather than taking concept from that which is exterior, the nucleus of the design is derived from the matter, as the material itself is didactic. A veteran of using reclaimed materials, Lars Dressler, one-half of the design duo behind the Brothers Dressler, explains that using repurposed resources provides the opportunity to consider layered provenances. Sharing this perspective, Scott Eunson notes that the act of reclaiming is about acknowledging a deep history, and that materials are often permeated by a social patina. It is through this patina that the material is permitted a kind of agency beyond “tree-ness.”

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Noa Bronstein is a curator and researcher based in Toronto. She has held positions at the Design Exchange and the Gladstone Hotel and is currently the Head of Exhibitions and Publications at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography.

Kona Recliner, Miles Keller
Felix Wedgwood Photography