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London, UK

A highlight of London Design Festival 2020, American Hardwood Export Council and Benchmark Furniture have opened ‘Connected’ with Design Museum – an initiative that explores an age-old material

Pink Moon by Studio Pepe

This year’s London Design Festival may have been mauled by Covid-19 and recent government restrictions, but the show is still going on. One of the highlights of the city-wide event, which runs from 12 – 20 September, is Connected at the Design Museum. The premise of the installation is straightforward. The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) asked a group of nine international designers to create a table and seat for their own home from a selection of three hardwoods – cherry, maple and red oak – found in the North American forests. The pieces would all be made by British furniture company Benchmark; the twist being that, with lockdown in place, none of the designers would be able to visit the maker’s workshop. Instead, all the communication would take place over Zoom and a plethora of other digital platforms. In fact, the first time the designers would physically see their work is when they were all brought together for the launch of the show at the Design Museum (if they were allowed into the country).

Nordic Pioneer Stools by Maria Bruun
Kadamba Gate by Ini Archibong
Stammtisch by Sebastian Herkner
Ultimately a project like this stands or falls on the calibre of the designers taking part and the organisers assembled a group that covers the spectrum of the design world

Ultimately a project like this stands or falls on the calibre of the designers taking part and the organisers assembled a group that covers the spectrum of the design world. Thomas Heatherwick (UK) and Jaime Hayon (Spain), for instance, are as close as the industry gets to household names; the likes of Maria Bruun (Denmark) Sabine Marcelis (The Netherlands) and Maria Jeglinska (Poland) are on the cusp of forging international reputations. And they all have different interests and ways of working. Sebastian Herkner (Germany) comes from a traditional product design background, whereas the likes of Studio Swine (UK and Japan) and, to an extent, Ini Archibong (USA and Switzerland) and Studiopepe (Italy) are rather more conceptual in their processes and work.

As a result, it isn’t hugely surprising that the finished results are eclectic and rarely less than fascinating. For several, the project has offered an opportunity to create a piece that they can both eat on, and work at. Some of the projects are deeply personal, or a response to a specific issue the virus has thrown up. Sabine Marcelis, for example, lives in a Rotterdam-based loft with her architect partner and new-born baby. Her space has few walls and she was keen to find a way of subtly hiding her partner’s huge computer screen and work detritus at the end of the day. Her solution was to create a large rectangle of timber on castors that opens up to reveal drawers, shelves, and a stool, all painted bright yellow, with the top turning into a desk. The idea is that when her partner has finished, the piece simply closes up and can be wheeled away.

Candy Cubicle by Sabine Marcelis

Thomas Heatherwick took a more panoramic view. He designed a set of legs on to which a desk top can be clamped. They are finished with planters, transforming the office desk into a mini-version of Kew Gardens. The British designer is keen to stress the importance of biophilia in our lives, even suggesting that one day all our office buildings will employ a gardener and was also keen to create an environment suitable for video conferencing calls, where the backdrop is as important as the desk itself.

Elsewhere, there are a panoply of beautiful (and beautifully made) details. The elongated back of Maria Jeglinska’s chair delineates space and is hugely comfortable; the barely visible timber hinge on Maria Bruun’s table is a technical tour de force; and the kidney-shaped plateaus that run between the planks of Sebastian Herker’s desktop – allowing him to clear stuff away quickly and have his lap top at the correct height for a Zoom call – are a bit of a joy. Look out too for the hint of Memphis in Studiopepe’s piece, which was inspired by an old Nick Drake song.

Stem by Heatherwick Studio
Humble Administrator by Studio Swine

For AHEC, the project is an opportunity to discuss sustainability and the importance of forest management, as well as showcase a fistful of timbers that are currently out of fashion with the market. Benchmark gets to flex its already well-honed making muscle, while the designers had an opportunity to create something for themselves but also consider about how the virus has changed the way we think about our homes and how we might work in the future. In other words, everybody wins.

Because of Covid restrictions you’ll need to buy a ticket to the Museum’s current show Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers to see the pieces. But if you can get in, it’s well worth the visit.

Connected runs at the Design Museum until 11 October.