Branching Out

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am


Ecologicality. The word may not be in English dictionaries but its meaning is clear when used by Tapio Anttila, the 2012 winner of Finland's Furniture Designer of the Year award. The portmanteau describes the practical and ecologically sound wooden home products he and fellow members make under the Woodism brand, which is carving a name for itself with a range of covetable objects created from timber cast-offs.

If all that sounds dreadfully earnest, the group's products are anything but. From bulls-eye clocks and wood-chip bean bags, to sensuous dining tables, Woodism's designs are sought after by not only the Finnish, who have long doted on wood, but other cultures with a strong appreciation for the material. That includes neighbouring Scandinavian countries, where Woodism is planning to take its concept, and Japan, where its products wowed visitors during Tokyo Designers Week in 2010.

But Woodism's products aren't for everyone - at least not those who want furniture to be uniform, mass-produced and perfect. On its website, there are stools that could be mistaken for having been snaffled from a firewood pile. A few of the simplest, mere tree stumps even appear to have been scorched by a rogue campfire or a bolt of lightning.

These stools were recently on display for foreign press invited to celebrate Helsinki's designation as World Design Capital 2012; they were planted willy-nilly in an exhibition space of a former match factory, now the home of the Pro Puu (pro-wood) Association, whose carpenters Woodism.

However, in that converted plant, an hour's drive from the capital in the city of Lahti, workshops demonstrate how beauty can be found in the imperfect. There, Markku Tonttila shows off an elm table scarred with a cleft that is featured with attitude. Although the piece might be regarded as flawed, Kalle Helminen, who was commissioned to build it for Euro3,000 (HK$30,000), sees it as its charm.

Woodism's 10 members, all of whom are vetted for talent, experience and ability to inspire, source their timber mostly from private gardens or public parks, such as Helsinki's Kaivopuisto, home to numerous foreign embassies. 'Very often we get trees that are diseased or too old,' says Anttila, explaining that instead of allowing them to be chopped and discarded, Woodism salvages the felled trunks and stores the wood for use in different projects.

Elms from Kaivopuisto continue life as Helminen's dining table and Anttila's Slice table, a keepsake with mesmerising striations and whose shape will please fans of Eames' surfboard table. 'We want to create objects that are partly designed by the material itself,' says Anttila. 'Unexpected details are important.'

Another aim of Woodism is to source from its own backyard. 'We like to use local Finnish wood,' says Tonttila, adding he is excited about an 18th-century tree in Helsinki that needs to come down.

'It's special to work with trees cut in the parks. They have a story and we have pictures of the trees. We know their history. Some clients want something from their own trees. Then they have a connection to it.'

Tonttila, who has his own company Ebonia Design, is a self-taught cabinet-maker who gave up waiting on tables to work full-time with wood. Like him, Anttila runs an eponymously named private firm, providing interior design as well as creating public-space furnishings and light fittings, among other things.

Woodism, which started five years ago, does not impede his other business because the two are different.

'For my other designs, in most cases I do mass production,' he says. 'Woodism is all about small series and unique pieces.'

Although the intention is to keep the group small, if its 10 members continue creating homeware that whets the public's appetite for eco-friendly, modern design, they will surely succeed in fostering a deeper understanding of the waste involved in the wood industry.

'Typically, only 20 per cent of a tree is used,' says Tonttila, explaining it is usually the lowest section that is sought after because it's seen as the best part. To make its point, the group hopes to hold an exhibition demonstrating the full use of trees. 'When we get an old tree, we want to use all of it,' he says. 'Even the leaves and the branches, which we can turn into art and small items, just to show that every part is special.'

What about the rotten bits? On this frigid afternoon when snow obscures the nearby lake, Tonttila rubs his hands and says, 'We also burn wood to warm houses. I take every bit of waste home to heat up the sauna and oven.'

An exhibition of Woodism products will be held at Virka Gallery at Helsinki City Hall, June 29-September 2,

Scrapheap Stars

These designers salvage not trees but trash, which they turn into keepsakes.

Piet Hein Eek's Scrapwood table (right), as its name suggests, is crafted from leftover material. The Dutch designer uses waste produced in the furniture-making process, layers the bits for strength, then lacquers lavishly. The Scrapwood table costs HK$115,000 at Lane Crawford Home Store.

Singh Intrachooto heads the Building Innovation and Technology programme at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. He began salvaging building waste in 2005, after realising how much debris was ironically being produced in the construction of his own eco-friendly structures. He is design principal at Osisu, which also uses waste recovered from factories and local communities to produce contemporary, vernac ular designs. Osisu's Zuu Collection (right), including Elephant (HK$14,300/HK$16,300) and Giraffe (HK$8,200), are created from materials such as teak scrap, tree roots and fibre board. The line is available at Ecols.

British-based Norwegian Amy Hunting foraged in a timber importer's rubbish bin to come up with the off-cuts needed to make her award-winning Blockshelf (right), which features about 20 different types of untreated wood. The Blockshelf, priced from GBP500 (HK$6,200), is available through