Connected by Design: AHEC x Benchmark x Design Museum

A new collaboration between Benchmark, the Design Museum and the American Hardwood Export Council sets out to explore how designers and craftspeople have adapted their working practices during the Covid-19 pandemic

Main image: The nine designers involved. From top left corner, clockwise: Ini Archibong; Sebastian Herkner; Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara di Pinto (Studiopepe); Thomas Heatherwick (Heatherwick Studio); Sabine Marcelis; Maria Jeglinska-Adamczewska; Alexander Groves (Studio Swine); Maria Bruun; Jaime Hayon (centre).

Words by FX Magazine

Yesterday the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), the Design Museum and Benchmark Furniture launched Connected, a new project that looks to explore the adaptation of designers and craftspeople to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Connected identifies two significant changes brought on by the lockdown period: how the design industry has had to embrace digital methods of communication over hands-on and in-person collaboration, and how many are now working from improvised (and less than ideal) home studio set-ups.

Looking for creative solutions to this situation, the project asks nine designers to design a table and seating for themselves, suited to this new way of home-working. During the Zoom-based launch of the project, David Venables, European director of the AHEC, explained why they had chosen the table for this project, discussing how during the lockdown period the table is more than ever 'the centre of the house', being used for everything from working to schooling. 

Image Credit: Petr Krejci Photography 

The tables and seating are to be made out of three sustainable American hardwoods (red oak, cherry, and maple) and each designer will be paired with a craftsperson from Benchmark to produce the furniture. All development will have to occur via video discussions, and will be sampled and made in Benchmark's Berkshire workshop without the designers themselves being present, or being able to touch their designs-in-progress. 

The nine designers, chosen jointly by Benchmark, the AHEC and the Design Museum, are Ini Archibong, Maria Bruun, Jaime Hayon, Sebastian Herkner, Maria Jeglinska, Sabine Marcelis, Heatherwick Studio, Studiopepe and Studio Swine. The nine designers are internationally based, and vary widely in their style of work as well as their experience working with wood. 

What has evolved out of the project so far – currently at the design concept stage – is described by Benchmark founder Sean Sutcliffe as 'really, really diverse... from one brief we've got a diversity of solutions that is quite enlightening.' Benchmark are experts in producing high quality wooden furniture, but the ambitions and daring of some of the designs will still be challenge.

As a wholly digital collaboration, the project will pose significant challenges for all those involved. This will be most difficult as the designs enter the development and sampling stage this month, as Sutcliffe explains: 'The real challenge comes when you get to the more haptic [stage].. what video conferencing can't convey is what something feels like; you can't convey the sit of the chair, you can't convey the touch of the texture, whether it's an applied texture, or trying to enhance the texture of the wood in some way.

So that's going to require a significant leap of faith... while I've done quite a lot of video conference development with designers, what I've never done before is wholly digitally... there's always been some visit. It's going to be really challenging for me to convey the bits that video can not convey, and for the designers to make the leap of faith to believe me.' 

Without meeting face to face or being able to touch detail samples, trust and communication becomes a key element of the project. Image Credit: Petr Krejci Photography

The American Hardwood Export Council chose the three hardwoods – red oak, cherry and maple. As David Venables, European director of the AHEC reports, sustainability was at the heart of these choices:

'This material-driven project is all about three underused hardwoods-red oak, maple and cherry-which combined account for more than 40% of all standinghardwoods in the American forests. All three are beautiful woods and we want the designers to discover their aesthetic and performance potential. But our emphasis is also on the environmental merits of making more use of what nature is growing. Over-reliance on a narrow selection wood types must ultimately result in supply stress. So, we have a responsibility to widen the choice.'

Life cycle analysis will be done for all the products, with Benchmark collecting data throughout for AHEC to model using its Lifecycle Assessment (LCA). This is also in line with Benchmark's own policies on transparency and accountability with sustainability for its products. Any additional materials used – Sutcliffe mentions elements of metal, plastic and glass used in some of the designs – must also be ethically sourced.

Over the next few months, the designs will be developed and details sampled before the final pieces are produced. To document this unique experience, the designers will produce video diaries, which will be available to view on the project website and on social media tagged with #connectedbydesign, and will eventually lead to a documentary-style film. 

The finished furniture will be unveiled at the Design Museum in September (subject to updates in government guidelines on Covid-19). Design Museum chief curator Justin McGuirk confirmed that when the exhibition opens, the public will be able to touch the final pieces.

Though celebrating the physical reconnection possible once Covid-19 no longer poses such a risk, the digital element of the project will be equally important to the exhibition. The intention is to allow visitors insight into the process, assessed via a screen on each of the finished tables – the interface of the screen, as McGuirk commented – having been central to the whole project, and to the whole of the lockdown period.

A species guide to the hardwoods: 

American red oak (Quercus rubra)

Reaching a height of 21m, with a trunk diameter of 1m, red oak is the most abundant species in America’shardwood forests. Distributed through much of the eastern United States, it is the most used hardwood in the U.S.and is popular in Asia. European woodworking industries are less familiar with red oak and have historically shown some reluctance to use it; although this is beginning to change as more designers and manufacturers are discovering its potential.

Named for the colour of its leaves in the fall, this classic oak wood has a light brown sapwood, and a heartwood characterised by attractive warm reddish-pink tones. The colour of the wood shows variation, based on location. Red oak is straight grained, coarse-textured and distinctive. The grain is so open that smoke can be blown through it from end-grain to end-grain on a flat-sawn board. Lighter in weight, more flexible, but just as strong as European oak, it has medium bending strength and stiffness and high crushing strength. With an open and porous grain structure, it is very good for steam bending. It glues and joints well. Being hard, stable when dry and easy to finish and stain, it is ideal for furniture, flooring and cabinet making applications. 

Overview: warm, grainy, tough and bendy, full of character.

American cherry (Prunus serotina):

A medium size tree, reaching a height of around 20m, with a trunk diameter of 50cm, American cherry makes up 3 per cent of the American forest resource overall, but in the northern Appalachians and particularly Pennsylvania and West Virginia it is very abundant and widely available. Cherry has a relatively short rotation, taking less time to mature than other hardwoods.

The narrow sapwood is a light pinkish colour, while the heartwood varies from rich red to reddish brown, and darkens on exposure to light. It is a high-quality cabinet wood and may contain streaks of lighter sapwood and dark gum pockets. With a straight unpronounced grain and fine texture, the wood is medium density and moderately strong. It is easy to machine, shape and connect, and when sanded and polished, produces an excellent smooth, glassy finish. American cherry had a long period of popularity in furniture making, but seems to have gone out of fashion. It is also used for panelling, turnery, tobacco pipes, veneers and has been specified for its acoustic properties, for usein auditoriums and concert halls.

Overview: rich, smooth, vibrant and flexible, a craftsman’s delight.

American maple (Acer rubrum and Acer saccharum):

A close cousin of European maple and sycamore, American maple can reach heights of between 23-27m, with a trunk diameter of 75cm. For purposes of this project, we are grouping the botanical subspecies, hard and soft maple, which share similar characteristics and are both relatively abundant. Hard maple is a cold climate species favouring the northern states, whereas soft maples grow more widely across the mixed hardwood forests of the eastern United States; with more red maple in the northeast and silver maple concentrated in the mid and southern states. Both hard and soft maple produce syrup.

The soft maple name is rather misleading given both timbers are relatively hard and heavy, with some variation in colour according to region. Both sapwood and heartwood may contain medullary flecks as a natural characteristic. All maple has a close, fine texture and is generally straight grained, with smooth, tight characteristics akin to a fruit-type timber. Hard maple can occur as ‘curly’, ‘fiddleback’ and ‘birds eye’ figure. The wood darkens slightly on exposure to light with time.

Maple has good strength properties, with medium bending and crushing strength. It can be steam bent and is low in stiffness and shock resistance. Maple machines well with care and is reasonable for fixing, although pre-boring of holes is recommended. It can be stained to resemble other species. Its tight, smooth grain and high resistance to abrasion and wear make maple particularly popular for use in furniture, musical instruments and flooring. It is the traditional wood of kitchenware, absorbing and transferring minimal taste.

Overview: light, fine, hard and incandescent, a bright choice


Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2021, All rights reserved.