The Clerkenwell Post, May 2015
May’s issue of the Clerkenwell Post featured Touch Wood my story about the Invisible Store of Happiness – a collaboration between the American Hardwood Export Council, Sebastian Cox and Laura Ellen Bacon that resulted in a site-specific installation for Clerkenwell Design Week.
Clerkenwell Design Week is known for making an impact – not least with its much talked about street installations. Katie Treggiden goes behind the scenes to find out more about the three-metre high American hardwood structure that furniture designer Sebastian Cox and outdoor sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon are making for the archway at the Order of Saint John.
“Every maker derives such a lot of joy from the making process,” says Bacon, twisting a ribbon of maple between her fingers as she talks. “I think that shows in your work – it has a ‘fullness’ to it. Everything you make has an invisible store of happiness placed inside it. We poured over ideas for months, but in the end that’s what it came down to.”
Since they started bringing that idea to life, it’s become an invisible store of much more besides. “It’s an invisible store of sleepless nights, an invisible store of anxiety, an invisible store of ambition and of bravery,” says Cox. “But all in a good way. This project has taken us both completely out of our comfort zones, and that’s what we wanted.”
The installation, still being built at the time of writing, will consist of two curved screens creating a cocoon-like environment inside. The external structure will be made of steam-bent lengths of cherry wood supported by upright columns. “As you approach it, it will feel very constructed, very ‘made’, almost architectural,” says Bacon. “But as you go past it, you will get tantalising glimpses of the interior.” Inside, steam bent ribbons of maple wood will spring out from the structure and be tucked back into specially formed slots. “They will be deeply textural, like standing in seaweed in a flowing river,” she explains.
As well as being an Invisible Store of mixed emotions, the project is an Invisible Store of Carbon. It has been commissioned by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) to showcase the environmental credentials of some of the less fashionable American hardwoods – in this case maple and cherry. The current trend for white oak and walnut is resulting in imbalanced demand, and as Cox says, “It’s important to use what nature provides, in the proportions that nature provides it.” The wood they are using, which was all donated, is not what AHEC would classify as FAS “first and second” grade wood. “But there’s nothing wrong with it,” enthuses Cox. “The grading system is about homogenising and 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 have really enjoyed working with this wood – 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 pair will be tracking every gram of carbon used in the making of the installation and they hope to complete the project with a lower carbon cost than an iPhone 6. The American forests are so vast that the wood used will have been replenished in the time it takes to walk from one end of the installation to the other.
Four weeks into a six week build, they are still constructing the elements that the installation will be made from: 65 steam-bent curves of cherry wood joined with 12 different scarf joints to form 14 arcs, 450 maple and cherry ‘swathes’ each with nine flexible ribbons, 450 tenons, 450 mortices, 350 routed slots… the preparation is a bigger job than the construction itself. Both are working twelve-hour days alongside a team of makers and volunteers, with Bacon getting up before 4am on a Monday to travel from her Derbyshire home to Cox’s London workshop for an 8am start. “We’re not even building upwards yet,” says Cox. “We’re building piles and piles of components and that takes a very different type of stamina. You’ve really got to take pleasure from working with the materials and be committed to the vision. I spent five hours on Easter Monday setting up the spindle moulder, so we could come in on Tuesday and get cracking,” said Cox. “We made 450 tenons in one and a half days – that was really fun.”
Talking to Cox and Bacon, there is a palpable sense that they are both completely outside their comfort zones and loving every minute. The two couldn’t be more different, neatly demonstrated by the fact that Bacon sketches with a 6B pencil to communicate the organic curves that are her trademark, while Cox draws with a 2H, or a computer programme, for absolute accuracy. Combine their very different working practices with the fact that they created the entire design before laying eyes the wood they would be working with, and are making something the likes of which neither of them has ever made before, and you’ve got two very brave designers. Would they do it all again? “Absolutely,” they say in unison.
All copy is reproduced here as it was supplied by Katie Treggiden to the client or publication.