Bar made out of American red oak for Handmade exhibition in Milan, pushes boundaries of the material and its designers

The ‘Blushing Bar’, a vibrant pink circular bar stole
the spotlight at the recently concluded Wallpaper* Handmade X: With Love
exhibition. Designed by architects Chan + Eayrs and made by Sebastian Cox, in
collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), the piece was
created to answer the brief of X set by the team at the magazine to celebrate
10 years of its showcase in Milan. Made out of American red oak, the bar not
only pushed the boundaries of the material – but also of its designers and
maker and was on show from April 9-13, 2019 at Salone dei Tessuti.

According to Zoe Chan, one half of Chan + Eayrs, the
‘Blushing Bar’ is a place of connection, a focal point for coming together and
it feels very personal, much like the projects the firm tends to take on. The
bar is composed of 10 modules intended for making cocktails (water, alcohol,
fruit, herbs, holders, ice, cutting, glass, sodas, wash basin), each of which
forms a variation of a curved sculpted element. With its sculptural external
facades and sensuous carved feet, the bar combines sculptural qualities with
functionality, while celebrating the unique properties of the timber it is made

“We interpreted X as both ‘10’, for Wallpaper*
Handmade’s 10th anniversary, but also a kiss for love, hence the name and colour
of the bar. Love makes one blush, and the heart pound; increasing blood
circulation through the body through our veins,” added Merlin Eayrs. “Red oak
has a pinkish flesh-like hue, and a porous nature which has capillaries/veins
so open you can blow through a short section. These wood veins have been pumped
through with deep pink dye by Sebastian Cox, like blood-filled veins through
love-struck flesh.”

To dye the wood, Sebastian Cox and his team machined a
series of uniform holes into the end grain of red oak, around 25mm deep and
14mm x 30mm wide. The wood was then put into a purpose-made dying jig. The
holes in the end grain were filled with red calligraphy ink. According to Cox,
by filling a series of holes, the team ensured the ink was distributed evenly
across the board of red oak.

Further, by using calligraphy ink, they were able to
get a very intense colour. A series of clamps were fastened onto the end of the
piece of red oak applying an air-tight rubber seal over the end grain and the
holes filled with ink. Once closed, a high-pressured air channel, which was
attached to the clamps, was gently opened allowing eight bars of pressured air
into the end grain of the wood and the ink-filled holes. This pressured air forced
the ink into the uniquely ring porous structure of red oak, emptying the holes
in a matter of seconds.

At this point, the ink in the holes was forced through
the pores of the wood, also known as xylem, by the pressured air. Xylem is the
name given to the vascular tissue in plants which sends water and dissolved
nutrients upwards from the roots and forms the woody element of the stem or
trunk. The ink in the xylem of the wood, when viewed in the machined pieces of
red oak, effectively highlighted the wood’s grain in a bright red colour.

These highlights were manipulated through the design
and manufacture of the bar to produce the finished effect. “The properties of
wood are traditionally thought of in relation to its strength, hardness and weight
– but when you start looking at the cellular structure of wood, you can begin
to explore other properties,” explained Cox. “Red oak is ring porous, so this
project has been a fun exploration of its cellular composition and how we can
use it to achieve a new aesthetic. When you shave a thin slice of it and put it
against the light, you get this beautiful dappled effect through the xylem and
its distinctly large spring growth.

“As a design studio, we tend to work with the natural
colours of the wood, but it’s been wonderfully freeing to use a vivid colour – particularly
since we have been using it to highlight the structure of the wood, hopefully
encouraging people to think a bit deeper about a really familiar material.
What’s more, we believe really strongly that you should use what nature yields –
and red oak is one of the most abundant species in the American forests and
suffers an unfair lack of popularity in Europe. We’ve really enjoyed creating
something which will get people to think about less appreciated but incredibly
useful materials, like red oak, in a new way,” he added.

On AHEC’s part, the ‘Blushing Bar’ is yet another
chapter in its mission to redefine red oak through experimentation and new
narratives that challenge industry preconceptions. As a timber, AHEC believes
red oak has been seriously and unfairly ignored in Europe and other parts of
the globe. David Venables, European director of AHEC, who has supported various
Wallpaper* Handmade projects in the past 10 years, says he was initially nervous
about the idea of ‘making red oak more red’, but was won over by the creativity
and beauty of the effect.

“Considering that one of the spurious reasons often
given for not using red oak is its colour, a reference to the fact that it is
generally warmer in tone than the white oaks from US and Europe, using red ink
could be seen as a provocative approach. But that is what our creative programmes
do best: they challenge conventional thinking, stir debate, and most importantly,
inspire. Achieving such a dramatic and exciting aesthetic effect by using red oak’s
unique cellular structure is very clever and demonstrates how a better
understanding of the material can inform the design process,” said Venables.

Cox believes “we are in the dawn of the wood age” and
that it’s important to invite people to “constantly reconsider wood as it’s the
only material that stores CO2, and is such an obvious part of the solution to
our current climate crisis”. He also says the inking process trialed in this
bar could definitely be scaled up to make large sheets, potentially even for use
in housing as well as furniture. “Exactly what we are doing in our studio could
be done in a bigger way.” With its elegant yet playful profile and shape, and
its rings of intense pink across its surfaces, the ‘Blushing Bar’ is as far
removed from a traditional piece of timber furniture as you can imagine. It’s
wood, but not as you’ve seen it before,” he declared.

Sebastian Cox is a furniture designer, maker and
environmentalist based in south London. He founded his workshop and design
studio in 2010 on the principle that the past can be used to design and make
the future. He is deeply motivated by the way generations of craftsmen have
used a limited palette of biodegradable and renewable materials, extracted from
the land in a responsible and connected way. Cox produces his own collections
of furniture, lighting and home accessories and collaborates with other
material experts, brands, interior designers, manufacturers and retailers who
share his vision for a better, more engaged, material future. He has been
labelled as one of the most influential designers in London by the London Evening
Standard and listed amongst Forbes’ 30 under 30 to watch.



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