The Invisible Store of Happiness at Clerkenwell Design Week

The Invisible Store of Happiness is a celebration of wood and craftsmanship. It brings together two of the UK’s brightest talents – furniture designer/maker Sebastian Cox and artist Laura Ellen Bacon – who will fuse their ideas and skills to create an installation for the Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) out of American hardwood.

This three-metre high wooden sculpture – made out of American maple and cherry, consists of a mighty steam bent frame that gives way to thinner, weave-able strips manipulated to twist and flow into a whirlpool of texture and shape – will be showcased in the dramatic archway in front of the historic Museum of the Order of St John in London’s Clerkenwell neighbourhood 19-21 May 2015.

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) is sponsoring this project as David Venables, Director of AHEC Europe explains:

 “The core of what we do is to celebrate the potential of our timbers. By supporting installations for events like CDW we can be experimental and do unusual things with our timbers through exploration of design and craftsmanship. Sebastian Cox, as one of the UK’s foremost makers, challenges the way wood works in a way nobody else does. Laura Ellen Bacon, with her artistic sensibility coupled with her wonderful sculptural work in willow wood, is the perfect complement to Sebastian’s approach. We want to ignite new thinking and excite designers about new ways to use wood.”

Sebastian Cox conceived the project and led by his growing passion for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), took it to AHEC as a proposal. Cox is best known for making handmade furniture with sustainable materials from the UK’s woodlands, but his passion for the progressive research AHEC are conducting into LCA led him to Venables. He asked Laura Ellen Bacon, whose poetic willow sculptures he has always admired, to join him for the project.

Cox said:

“The starting point is the material. Laura works in a material that allows her to make form but the material for Laura is secondary. She is a sculptor first and foremost. I think materials first, structure later. So there was a huge discussion about the challenge between design and sculpture.”

Laura Ellen Bacon said:

“There is a blur here between sculpture and furniture. My work typically carries of a notion of growth and momentum and I always like to question how and why a form comes into being. When creating a form brings so much joy in the making, then the form will always carry this joy within it. For me, forms are always created in respect of what is possible with my bare hands. Alongside Sebastian, we’ve tried to use this material in as pure a way as possible, letting the form convey both the properties of the wood and what is possible with our bare hands.”

CRAFTING THE INVISIBLE STORE OF HAPPINESS 

The maple and cherry have been crafted into an elliptical-shape frame that showcases fine craftsmanship and impeccable cabinetry on a grand scale with huge arcs of steam bent wood, hand jointed together in mostly glue-less draw-bore mortice and tenon joints.

Through complex machinery the components of this solid frame are effectively shredded into strips and made supple and weave-able from time spent soaking in the River Thames beside Sebastian’s Woolwich workshop. These strips are boldly manipulated by hand, flowing and twisting into the space to create a whirlpool of texture and shape, all held within its mighty external frame.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONSIDERATIONS 

American hardwood forests are sustainably managed. Furthermore, for several years now, AHEC has invested in environmental profiling in the form of environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of its projects through independent experts, the Germany-based company PE International. The Invisible Store of Happiness will also be profiled, using the latest LCA modelling techniques.

David Venables says:

“We can now produce accurate scientific profiles for each project we get involved in. The fact that we can collect data and mathematically model wooden products is as important as the numbers themselves. Why? Because it shows industry what is possible and also alerts the design community as to what is around the corner. I can envisage a time in the not-too-distant future when all products will be required to carry an environmental rating based on scientific life cycle.”

Sebastian Cox says,

“We can also use data from AHEC and the US Forest Service to calculate how quickly timbers we use get replaced in the U.S. forests through natural regeneration. I was fascinated to see the speed at which the timber I used in the Wish List project was regenerated in the American woodlands. I believe the entire design community should be more aware of LCA and we should be dedicated to measuring the environmental impact of the things we design and make. Similarly, people should be able to know the true environmental impact of the things they buy and have in their home. Projects like this demonstrate the importance of things like LCA”.

As an example of the sustainability of American hardwood forests, for AHEC’s Endless Stair, made out of tulipwood CLT, it took less than two minutes for the 100m3 of logs used in the project to be replaced in the forests. All the timber to make the ten pieces produced for last year’s “Wish List” project took two seconds to be replaced. Of course, it is the sheer scale of forests, which cover the same landmass as England, France and Italy put together that makes this possible, together with the fact that every year growth far exceeds harvest.

American hardwoods have a low impact on the environment at all stages of their life cycle right from the point of extraction. Forest management in the sector is not intensive, one outcome of the fact that most American hardwood forests are owned and managed by individuals, families, or small companies rather than large timber corporations. Forest holdings are relatively small, mostly under 10 hectares, limiting the size of harvesting operations.

The primary motivation for owning the land is usually not timber production or economics, but simply the enjoyment of forest ownership. Because timber production and economic return to shareholders are not primary objectives, the owners of American hardwood forests tend to manage less aggressively and to grow their forests on longer rotations. Selection harvesting is typical, involving removal of only a few trees per hectare, rather than clearfelling.

After harvesting, forest owners usually rely on natural regeneration, which is abundant in the deep fertile forest soils of the United States. There is little need or incentive for addition of chemical fertilisers. No non-native “exotic” or genetically modified species are used.