Image above: Ren chair by Something Beginning With.
“I like to design and make furniture that is collected, loved and cherished by its owner,” says furniture designer Jon Goulder. “I hope my work gets handed down through generations. This, to me, is sustainable use of a beautiful material.” As a fourth-generation furniture-maker, Goulder understands the capacity of a well-designed piece to weather the ages and grow in beauty.
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that timber plays a central part in his oeuvre. “I use a lot of American timber in my projects. I love walnut and rock maple. I use these timbers because they come from a sustainable source and they provide me with the colour palette I like, more and more I am trying to work with Australian timbers that are sustainable,” he explains.
His Glissando credenza (2010) exemplifies his approach. Crafted in American black walnut or rock maple, its minimalist rectilinear form is enlivened by a sine wave crafted from vertical fins that rise and fall across its face, demonstrating Goulder’s finely resolved use of timber.
His Therry chair (2014) exhibits the same deft mastery of timber construction. Here, a solid timber frame bends and curves just so, being simultaneously sturdy and slim, a sculptural piece designed to welcome a sejant human body.
In the Sawdust Bureau workshop, located in Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Kensington, designer Bryan Cush is fascinated by the story timber tells. “Timber’s ‘imperfections’ as a natural product is what makes it so unique and such a pleasure to work with,” he says.
“In concrete and steel, slight defects are viewed as a weakness but, with wood the natural imperfections are considered features. Knots and sap holes tell the story of the composition and growth of the tree. While in salvaged timber, the carbon leeching from old nail holes offers up a story of a later application as beams and joists.”
With designer Greg Bielawiec, Cush produces lovingly crafted high-quality, low-volume pieces of furniture. The influence of Bielawiec’s engineering background is evident in the complex angles, cantilevers and intersections that characterise the studio’s work. “The obvious benefit of working with wood is its warmth and tactility, enticing human contact. With furniture, the scale is such that the piece can be viewed from all angles and you can observe how light reflects off or is absorbed into the grain, revealing a depth of hues and colours,” Cush explains.
The warmth and texture of plywood made it an ideal solution for the Black Street Residence in Brunswick by Project 12 Architecture. The brief called for two bedrooms and a bathroom to be inserted into the lower level of a long, lean former warehouse space that had been used previously as an artist’s studio.
The clever scheme positioned the two new bedrooms at the eastern and western ends of the space, with a central living zone between them. A series of plywood panels allow the bedrooms to be closed or opened up as required. “The ply panels were a key strategy for the transformation of this space. We envisaged them as a way to contain the bedrooms, but to still provide natural light and ventilation in the living zone,” says architect Aimee Goodwin. “The bedrooms become intimate and contained spaces with the panels closed. Once you open them, you get very long views from the living space.”
The ply panels wrap the space, creating a seamless ply surface that has been thoughtfully detailed. “It’s a beautifully warm material that offsets the concrete surfaces while still retaining that industrial feel,” Goodwin says. Besides its aesthetic qualities, the team recognises the material’s ability to minimise materials and wastage. “We like working with ply because it’s a structural substrate and a finished surface – there is a real economy in that approach,” Goodwin says. “We tried to minimise wastage by working with the standard panel sizes, working around the module of the panel itself.”
Project 12 Architecture says that sustainability is an important consideration in all of its projects. Whether it’s the plywood panels used here or shiplap weatherboards (another of the studio’s preferred finishes), Goodwin emphasises the need to make responsible product choices. “You have to be aware where your products are coming from. With all the timber we specify we look for the relevant certifications and ensure it’s sustainably sourced,” she says.
The 2015 Intergrain Timber Vision Awards have once again highlighted the ways in which timber is being used to create inspiring and functional residential spaces. Jackson Clements Burrows’ compact Moonlight Cabin, winner of the Residential Exterior category, provides a remote escape for a family of four. Exposed to the extremities of the Victorian coastline, the cabin uses perforated timber shutters to create spatial and visual transitions between the building and the environment.
Similarly, Local House by Make Architecture received a commendation for its use of timber to create visual engagement with the more urban surrounds of St Kilda. The timber screen has been designed for sun shading and to control overlooking to the neighbours, while still providing distant views over the rooftops beyond.
Choosing sustainable timbers is central to Tait’s design process, too – founders Gordon and Suzie Tait are committed to specifying sustainably sourced materials for all of their outdoor furniture and accessories. “First and foremost, we design and make furniture that we hope will offer a lifetime of use. As our furniture is left outside to survive the elements, this is not always entirely possible but we do our darnedest!” Tait says.
“We choose FSC timbers, formaldehyde-free compact laminate (which is made with kraft paper) and the best quality finishes we can source. If the furniture does need to be retired, it can all be disassembled and recycled,” she adds. Designed by Justin Hutchinson, Tait’s neat Tilt outdoor kitchen, a compact barbecue unit enclosed by a screen of Accoya slats that folds up to become an awning, is a recent example. “Accoya is a high-performance wood that has properties that match or exceed those of the best tropical hardwoods. It’s a modified wood that goes through a process of acetylation, which changes the timber cell structure so it loses its ability to absorb moisture, making it incredibly durable,” she adds.
Elsewhere, their streamlined benches and tables are designed to highlight the variance and character of their materials. “No two pieces of timber are alike and each piece offers its own beauty. There is quite an art to selecting the planks for a setting so they complement each other. If the correct timber is chosen and a little bit of cleaning and oiling is applied regularly, timber offers a superb, long-lasting surface for outdoor use,” Tait says.
For Lisa Vincitorio, co-founder of design studio Something Beginning With, the versatility of timber and its ability to transform is its key strength. “Architects and designers are increasingly using timber in technically complex designs, from furniture and joinery to wall panelling.” The studio’s furniture designs pair timber elements with upholstery and minimalist metal frames. “Timber is ever-changing and has the luxury of being reinterpreted in various finishes – from natural, soap wash and oiled to black-stained or coloured lacquered finish,” she says.
While each of these design practices employs timber in different ways, what unites them is a love for the warmth and character of timber. “When you work with wood, you become familiar with the way it moves and the way it reacts to different conditions and climates,” says Jon Goulder. “Understanding these characteristics and restraints is what makes a good craftsperson.”
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