Out of the woods: adventures of 13 hardwood chairs

For the last part in a series of London Festival of Architecture-focused events that have predominated on the Culture Blog lately, we’re taking a look at an unusual transatlantic collaboration.

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) – who may be familiar from the incredible Timber Wave sculpture that was erected outside the V&A last year – has teamed up with London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) for a project in sustainable design.

While ‘sustainable’ is already becoming a vague, hackneyed term that often has little meaning outside the realms of marketing and PR, it is encouraging to see projects that are really taking its importance to the core of what they do. This is one of them. The AHEC challenged 13 students on the Product Design course at the RCA to design innovative and functional seating using an American hardwood of their choice.

Putting its groundbreaking Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) research into action for the first time, the AHEC is enabling students to fully understand, communicate and compare the ‘life cycle impacts’ of their designs, and each piece will be environmentally profiled using the LCA modelling system. As if that didn’t seem thorough enough, the AHEC is in the process of producing the first ever Environmental Product Declaration for American hardwood lumber and veneer, which will be used by the students to produce a ‘cradle-to-grave’ analysis of the environmental effect of their designs. No room for vagueness here.

The students developed their seating ideas into working prototypes at Terence Conran’s Benchmark workshops last week, and the results will be exhibited at the V&A in September in an exhibition called Out of the Woods: Adventures of 13 Hardwood Chairs.

Under the leadership of tutors Sebastian Wrong and Harry Richardson, the use of wood and its life cycle impacts have become a part of the Product Design course curriculum at the RCA. Richardson says, ‘it is not only a case of designing a chair that will survive physically far into the future, it is also to produce a chair whose design will remain relevant far into the future.’

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