Weaving: Contemporary Makers on the Loom (Ludion)

Following the success of Urban Potters: Makers in the City, Ludion commissioned Katie Treggiden to write a follow-up, this time about weaving. You can see the introduction below and buy the book on Amazon. The full text also includes profiles on 21 contemporary weavers and in-depth essays on gender, migration, weaving as art or craft and the future of this ancient craft. All copy as provided to the publisher.

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Weaving is a vast and complex subject about which many books have already been written from instructive how-to guides to seminal texts such as Anni Albers’ On Weaving. This book attempts to be neither, but perhaps something in between – a survey of the contemporary weaving scene and an exploration of some of the themes that touch the lives of makers today. In selecting both weavers and topics, it has of course been necessary to leave many more out that could ever have been included and those decisions have not been taken lightly. It is the hope of both author and publisher that what has been included will serve as an invitation for those new to weaving to go and find out more, and perhaps provide some fresh perspectives for those already familiar with the subject.

The history of weaving can be seen as a tug-of-war between hand and head, between control and speed, between risk and certainty. Craft theorist David Pye described the making process as a continuum from the ‘free workmanship of risk’ where the maker responds to materials and process throughout, and the ‘regulated workmanship of certainty’* where decisions are finalised before making begins. In reality, very little sits at either extreme – most making happens somewhere in the middle, employing ‘hand knowledge’ and ‘head knowledge’ simultaneously. Moving along the spectrum from total risk to total certainty promises time savings, increased tooling and the transfer of control from the hands of the maker to the owner and programmer of the tools.

Although the principles of weaving have barely changed since its inception some 8,000 years ago and the very nature of the discipline requires decisions to be taken before the intertwining of warp and weft can begin, as the millennia have passed, mechanisation and industrialisation have moved weaving further and further towards Pye’s workmanship of certainty. Despite this shift, the element of risk has never lost its allure, and weavers throughout history have sought ways to engage with the threads throughout the process – not least the contemporary weavers profiled in this book, many of whom use simple hand, floor and table looms to create intricate and often challenging works of art, craft and utility.

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Fundamentally, weaving is the formation of a fabric through the interlacing of two sets of threads (the warp and the weft) at right angles to one another. The warp threads are held parallel while the weft is passed over and under the warp in rows to create fabric. The process is as old as cloth; we have used fabrics to swaddle our newborns and wrap our dead since time immemorial. It is likely that the weaving of textiles pre-dates the spinning of yarn, evolving from the practice of weaving reeds and grasses into baskets, fences and shelters. Very early weaving was carried out by hand with one end of the warp tied onto clothing or a belt (in a process similar to ‘finger-knitting’), before looms were introduced to keep warp threads taut, enabling the weft to be interwoven more easily. From that point on, despite all its complexity, weaving has comprised three simple processes. First, a selection of the warp yarns (in the case of plain weaving, every other thread) is lifted to form a ‘shed’ – the wedge-shaped space between the warps that are lifted and those left behind. Second, the weft yarns (initially bundled together, later wound around a stick, and eventually wound around bobbins in a ‘shuttle’) are passed or propelled through the shed from one side to the other. Finally, the weft is beaten or ‘tamped’ towards the previous row with a comb, before the shed is changed (forming the ‘countershed’) with those warps that were lifted being lowered and vice versa, so the process can begin again in reverse.

Early weaving used a ‘warp-weighted loom’, in which two wooden sticks are leant against a wall supporting a rotating upper bar from which warps are suspended, each one weighted at the bottom. Weaving progressed downwards from the top, and so the weft was beaten upwards, working against gravity. Most commonly associated with Greek wool weaving (illustrations appear on Greek vases from 6,000 BC until 4,000 BC), this method was also used in Chilkat weavings common to several native communities on the northwestern coasts of North American, by the English in the early Bronze Age, in the rest of Northern Europe until the Roman conquest, and in Scandinavia and Iceland until relatively recently.

The weights at the bottom of the warp were eventually replaced with a second bar, resulting in the two-bar vertical loom, which allowed weavers to weave upwards from the bottom and beat the weft downwards. Examples of such looms appear in 12th Dynasty Egyptian wall paintings dating back to 1900 BC. They still used by the indigenous Navajo people in the southwestern United States, as well as in Africa, Greece and the Middle East; and they are similar to contemporary tapestry looms.

An alternative configuration is the Egyptian ground loom, also featuring two bars at each end of the warp but held horizontally off the ground by a peg at each corner. These looms can be seen pictured on pre-Dynastic Egyptian pottery from 5000 BC to 3100 BC and were also used in Peru, India, Europe, Africa and what is now Turkey. The horizontal orientation suits finer and looser fibres and the fact these looms are easy to dismantle and reassemble made this method of weaving particularly appealing to the Bedouin and other nomadic tribes in the Middle East, Pakistan and North Africa.

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In the ‘back-strap’ or ‘body-tension loom’, the upper bar is attached to a pole or tree and the lower bar to a belt around the weaver’s back, so the warp can be tightened or loosened as the weaver leans backwards or forwards. Examples of the back-strap loom have been recorded in Asia, Japan, the Malay Islands, China, Burma and Tibet and they are still used in South and Central America – notably in Peru, Guatemala and Mexico. As looms developed, so did the tools used with them – from the bobbins and shuttles used to propel the weft, to the combs, reeds and ‘weavers swords’ used to beat it down, but none was as influential as the ‘heddle rod’ or ‘shaft’.

The design of a fabric is determined by which warp threads the weaver chooses to lift, and which are left behind, determining which warps the weft passes under or over. This selection was once done by hand giving the weaver full control – but this process took time, as the weft literally had to be moved handful by handful. The separation of warps was simplified by placing a ‘shed rod’ under the warps to be lifted, however this didn’t solve the problem of the alternate warp threads, raised to create the countershed. To address it, loose loops around these warp threads called ‘heddles’ were attached to a rod above (the ‘heddle rod’ or ‘shaft’). When this was lifted the threads were separated in the opposite way. A second heddle rod eventually replaced the shed rod, and multiple heddles were added to enable structural patterns, as seen in today’s shaft looms. The introduction of heddles (first recorded in Egypt in 2000BC but invented independently at different times around the world) was instrumental to the mechanisation of weaving.

For all the advances in speed and consistency that these tools brought, each new tool limited the freedom of the weaver. In a bid to regain control and return to the ‘workmanship of risk’, silk weavers in China in the second century BC and in the Middle East in the sixth and seventh centuries AD introduced the ‘draw-loom’, which enabled more elaborate patterns, such as brocaded textiles and damasks, by making an almost infinite number of different shed configurations possible. Each warp was now attached to a heddle and the heddles were in turn attached to draw cords for every shed configuration the weaver wanted to use. Each shed had a numbered cord that was pulled in sequence by a ‘draw boy’ while the weaver inserted the weft. The number of sheds was only limited by the number of ways in which the draw cords would be combined. However, the size and complexity of the loom demanded skilled workers and a permanent set-up, so although this gave control back to individual weavers, the organisation of labour that the loom demanded meant they were rarely working autonomously.

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Hand weavers, who pass the weft thread through the shed from one hand to the other, could only weave fabric as wide as their arm span, until John Kay patented the ‘flying shuttle’ in 1733. This device enabled the weaver to propel their weft yarn through the shed along a system of cords at considerable speed. Combined with innovations in spinning, flying shuttles were one of the key developments that led to power looms and helped weaving to fuel the Industrial Revolution in the North of England and beyond.

The draw loom was used across Europe until it was superseded by Jacquard techniques in the early 19th century. In 1804, Joseph Marie Charles (known as ‘Jacquard’ after his father Jean Charles) invented an adaption to existing power looms through which a system of up to 2,000 punch-cards dictated the shed configurations and therefore the patterns woven. ‘Bolus hooks’ attached to warp threads via a harness were either raised or stopped depending on whether they hit the punch card where there was a hole or where there was solid card. Whether or not each warp was raised or lowered determined whether the weft passed above or below it and therefore dictated the pattern. Each hook lifted individual threads, enabling intricate patterns, and could also be attached to multiple threads, enabling the pattern to repeat across the fabric. This revolutionised the production of highly decorative woven materials because it eliminated the need not only for draw boys, but also for skilled weavers, at a time when water and steam power were also being introduced alongside technology that enabled the shuttle to be propelled mechanically, and eventually digitally. However, although Jacquard techniques represented a significant advance in technology, the cost involved meant that they were – and still are – reserved for expensive fabrics. The majority of woven fabrics, both then and now are made on ‘dobby looms’ –  a type of floor loom that uses a ‘dobby’ head (a replacement for and corruption of ‘draw boy’) to control the warp threads. Most have eight shafts or heddles, enabling them to lift groups of warps (as opposed to the single yarns lifted in Jacquard looms). An alternative is the treadle loom, where multiple heddle rods (shafts) are controlled by foot treadles – one for each heddle rod.

The weavers profiled in this book use both jacquard and dobby looms, with some working on simple lap looms, representing work right across Pye’s spectrum and embracing risk and certainty in different ways and at different moments in the process.

*Pye, D. (1968) The nature and art of workmanship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 18–19

Foreword to The Value of Making (Emily Jo Gibbs)

Emily Jo Gibbs invited Katie Treggiden to write the foreword to her book, The Value of Making, written to accompany an exhibition of the same name at Contemporary Applied Arts. ‘I’m really delighted – I feel you have made my book so much more intelligent,’ she said. All copy as provided to Emily.

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This series of portraits is a response to what Emily Jo Gibbs describes as ‘the lack of value placed on making by our society’. Given that both the process of making and the handmade objects that result bring so much joy, why are craft skills undervalued at every level of society from education to employment and commerce?

The answer, as with so many things, lies with the ancient Greeks, who believed sight to be the noblest of our five senses. ‘The eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears,’ wrote Heraclitus, while Aristotle claimed that sight ‘approximates the intellect most closely’[1] making a link between vision and knowledge, understanding and truth. This reverence for sight was reflected in an emerging hierarchy between vocations:

‘We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons for the things which are done.’[2]

As well as demoting those who make below those who design, Aristotle uses the word cheirotechnon to describe them, which, directly translated, simply means ‘handworker’, in contrast to the earlier demioergos – a combination of the words ‘public’ and ‘productive’ that implies a greater value to society.[3]

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By the Renaissance, sight (associated with fire and light) sat at the top of a strict hierarchy of senses, with touch (associated with earth) relegated to the bottom. It follows then that thinking and drawing (associated with the eyes) became prized above making (associated with the hands).

Sir Joshua Reynolds became the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and argued that an artist might start his training with manual skills but would only graduate once he had mastered ‘the grandeur of his ideas.’[4]  Thomas Chippendale’s ‘pattern books’ took design out of the hands of makers and into the heads of draughtsmen and by the end of the century craftspeople were simply ‘called upon to fill the gap between sketch and product.’4

The 19th century brought with it the Industrial Revolution and further division of labour between head and hand. Inspired by a romanticised vision of the artisan’s role in 12th-century cathedral construction, and profoundly influenced by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin, William Morris led the Arts and Crafts movement in proposing a return to hand-craftsmanship, which would return artisans to the status of artists. Although the movement failed to fulfil many of its aims, craft theorist Glenn Adamson argues that it was in this era that craft was truly invented – in opposition to industry.[5]

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Today we face a different set of challenges and a revolution of our own. The myth of the hierarchy of the senses is being exacerbated by technology – while haptic feedback is now programmed into our smartphones to reassure us that our commands are being received, their ubiquitous screens serve up predominantly sight and sound while taunting us with images that exude tactility, taste and scent. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa describes the resulting status of those ‘other three senses’ as ‘archaic sensory remnants with merely a private function.’[6] No wonder skills of the hard aren’t prioritised in schools.

And yet change is in the air. Adamson argues that the digital revolution is just as traumatic as its industrial predecessor, describing craft as ‘an understandable response to the crises of modernity.’[7] When ceramic artist and author Edmund de Waal talks about ‘returning to earth’ he is, of course, referring to clay, and yet he might also be referring to a return to the sense of touch. From trend forecaster Li Edelkort predicting that ‘super technology is going to ask for super tactility’[8] in 2012 and Design Academy Eindhoven creative director Thomas Widdershoven describing tactility as ‘a political statement, a social statement, a human statement’ in 2015[9] to the current surge in demand for all things handmade, it seems the value of making is finally being recognised. Looking at Emily Jo Gibbs’ exquisite works in this book, you start to understand why. The connection Emily has formed with her fellow makers is more than evident in the portraits she has made of them, and yet there are things Emily is able to articulate through the physically invested work of stitching, and through her instinct to focus not on the makers but their tools, that might elude both writers and photographers. In the texture and tactility of these portraits, in every hand-stitched detail, every silken shadow, Emily captures and celebrates the value of making – both that of her subjects and her own.

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[1] Pallasmaa, J. (2012) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Chicester: John Wiley & Sons [2] Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books [3] Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books [4] Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking through craft. London / New York: Berg [5] Adamson, G. (2013) The invention of craft. London / New York: Bloomsbury Academic [6] Pallasmaa, J. (2012) The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the senses. London: Wiley & Sons. [7] Adamson, G. (2013) The invention of craft. London / New York: Bloomsbury Academic [8] Etherington, R. (2012) “Super technology is going to ask for super tactility” – Li Edelkoort at Dezeen Live. London: Dezeen. Available online: https://www.dezeen.com/2012/12/28/super-technology-is-going-to-ask-for-super-tactility-li-edelkoort-at-dezeen-live/ [9] Widdershoven, T. (2015) Press conference, Design Academy Eindhoven graduate show, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Book photography by Yeshen Venema. Exhibition photography by Katie Treggiden.

Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican Estate (Anton Rodriguez)

In March 2016, I was approached by The Barbican to write the foreword for a new photographic book documenting the interiors of the Barbican Estate. Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican Estate by Anton Rodriguez was published in October 2016. All copy as provided.

“The Barbican key, known as the ‘Magic Key’, is entrusted to those who live here, and only to those who live here. Distinct in shape and form, it opens doors that take you beyond the estate’s public realm into the areas where the daily lives of the Barbican community traverse, convene and unwind in private.” Max Fraser, Barbican Resident

A sense of privacy and protection is built into the Barbican estate’s architecture. Designed to shield its residents from the outside world – whether that was the aftermath of the Blitz, the surrounding industry of the city, or the traffic below – this holistic experiment in urban housing is both of the city and apart from it; a place whose unmistakable ‘otherness’ inspires both devotion and distaste, and somewhere which has a captivating power to spark curiosity and speculation among those looking in from the outside.

Once known as Cripplegate, and the site of London’s principal Roman fort built between 90 and 120AD, the Barbican area survived both the Plague and the Great Fire of London relatively unscathed, only to be razed to the ground in one extraordinary night of bombing on 29 December 1940, when more than 124,000 bombs turned it into the largest continuous expanse of Blitz destruction anywhere in Britain.

After the war, thoughts turned to reconstruction, but a housing solution was by no means a foregone conclusion; how the site should be regenerated was hotly debated for years. The 1943–44 County of London Plan and Greater London Plan both proposed easing traffic congestion by moving people out of London to new satellite towns, and the 1947 City of London Plan focused entirely on commercial redevelopment. It wasn’t until 1951 when the City of London’s population dropped to 5,324 (and Cripplegate’s to just 48), and new legislation gave the Corporation of London powers proportional to its residential population, that housing was even considered.

At the same time, ideas about how people should live were changing. The need to rebuild London after the war and increasing difficulties in commuting began to challenge more than a century of suburbanisation – people wanted to live in cities again. There was also a growing desire to escape ‘English-ness’ and its post-war austerity. A shift that began with the 1951 Festival of Britain saw people yearning for Italy’s ‘dolce vita’ and looking to France for new ideas – and in particular to one architect: Le Corbusier. His Villa Savoye with its reinforced concrete stilts, non-supporting walls, open floor plan, long strips of full-height windows and roof garden, was already influencing young architects in Britain, who were hoping to set the scene for a new, more international lifestyle.

But, torn between the tradition in which they were educated, and the new Modernist ideals that were emerging in Europe throughout the project’s development, the architects increasingly wanted to create a utopian vision of the future. They did this by combining those local and historical references with ideas for modern living that responded to the aspirations of the post-war generation and suggested a distinctly European sense of ‘newness’. Chamberlin took the Barbican Committee to see the best examples of contemporary architecture in Europe – including Berlin’s Hansa district, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation and the Theatro San Erasmo in Milan – so keen was he to secure their support. And it worked: Le Corbusier’s principles can be seen right across the built estate from the commitment to space and light in even the smallest flats, which feature dramatic double-height spaces and floor-to-ceiling glazing, to the flexibility of sliding walls between rooms. Admittedly, its execution is more faithful in some areas than others – although Milton Court (since demolished) clearly had its origins in the Villa Savoye, the terraces stand on a solid podium despite also being supported by Le Corbusien ‘pilotis’ (stilts), and the pick-hammered concrete finish unifying the site goes against the constructional honesty of ‘béton brut’ from which Brutalism derives its name. Concrete was in fact an economic compromise suggested by structural engineer Ove Arup, replacing CB&P’s original white marble cladding.

Eventually 2,014 apartments in 140 ‘types,’ ranging from studio flats to seven-bedroomed houses, were completed across three tower blocks, 13 terrace blocks, two mews and The Postern, Wallside and Milton Court. A series of raised walkways (originally planned as part of a network of 30 miles of ‘pedways’ across the city that was subsequently abandoned) separates residents from the traffic below. The arts centre that followed was built in such a way as to minimise disruption to the site’s inhabitants, buried in a 60-foot hole with its fly-tower draped in a pyramidal greenhouse revived from previous plans. Even St Giles’ church bell no longer rings, lest it disturb the residents.

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Inside, space is bothefficiently optimised –with sliding doors, mezzanine levels and compact kitchens designed by boat-builders – and yet gloriously ‘wasted’ with double-height spaces, barrel-vaulted bedrooms and functionless alcoves, which, as the architects put it, were “only included for delight”. Every detail has been considered, from handles that fold into doors, enabling them to sit flush to the wall, to double-access cupboards that allow deliveries to be made without disturbing residents. Perhaps inevitably, the kitchens have dated the most. Yet to acquire the status they have gained in recent times, they were treated as functional service areas and designed for efficiency. The bathrooms have fared slightly better – although some argue that’s only because the sheer weight of the bath makes it difficult to replace. The cleverly designed washbasin is testament to CB&P’s fastidiousness; it was a late addition following new guidance recommending that separate toilets should have their own sinks, and although the trio found the perfect solution in Twyford’s design for the Shell Centre, they insisted on developing their own version, which took six months to produce.

Despite the current revival of Brutalism, the Barbican estate fiercely divides opinion to this day. It was granted Grade-II-listed status in 2001 and in 2003 topped a poll of London’s ugliest buildings. In 2014 it was both described by influential architecture blog Dezeen as “a utopian ideal for inner-city living” and voted London’s ugliest tall building – again. People either love the Barbican or they hate it.

Personally, I love it. In his book, B is for Bauhaus (2014), Deyan Sudjic says, “architecture at its heart has to be about optimism,” and for me that is what makes the Barbican such a special place. Despite being completed long after the Modernist movement had reached its zenith and suffering at the hands of many compromises, it is an icon of altruistic architecture. Its creation was driven not by a desire for fame and fortune (in fact Powell destroyed most of the firm’s records), but by an aspiration to bring a better way of life to British people. Even the smallest flats are spacious and light – and complemented by culturally vibrant communal spaces, such as the arts centre, lending library and waterside café. Its success is less about what it’s like to look at and more about what it’s like to live in. As Tom Dixon says in Barbican: Life, History, Architecture (2014): “the Barbican reminds us of how different it all could have been.”

Today, the Barbican estate is home to approximately 4,000 people (half the population of the City of London), but such is the privacy of the estate that speculation abounds about what goes on behind its closed doors. What do the flats look like inside? Do listings regulations really protect the bathplugs? Who lives there – have the original residents stayed into their dotage, or is the estate once again full of the young professionals for whom it was originally designed? Are the interiors slavishly Modernist, or have people stamped their own personalities on them, as CB&P hoped they would? For such an iconic complex that looms so large on London’s skyline, relatively little is known about life inside. Countless books and magazine articles have been written about its history and architecture, but very little has been published about the people who actually get to experience it first hand. In this wonderful book, and in his on-going photography project of the same name, Anton Rodriguez is giving us a rare glimpse inside the Barbican estate and introducing us to some of its residents. In doing so, he is giving each one of us our very own magic key.

The book has been well received by critics, including The Observer / Guardian online, City AM, Creative Review, Dezeen, We Heart and The Spaces. All photography by Anton Rodriguez.

Informing (American Hardwood Export Council)

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.

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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 essays were written for the American Hardwood Export Council. You can also read them here. 

Making, American Hardwood Export Council, April, 2015

All copy as provided to the brand.

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.

This essay was written as a series of four for the American Hardwood Export Council. You can read all four essays here. 

Thinking, American Hardwood Export Council, February 2015

All copy as provided to the brand.

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.

This essay was written as a series of four for the American Hardwood Export Council. You can see all four essays online here.