PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2005, 12:00am

Not long ago, few people knew what wenge was, let alone how to pronounce it. Now it's everywhere, from stylish boutiques to boutique hotels to hotel-like homes. So why has this enigmatic African strain of wood (pronounced 'wengay') become so hip?

According to John Lam, who stocks a Christian Liaigre wenge day bed (below; $66,000) at his outlet, the Wabi Gallery (shop 307, Lee Gardens Two, Causeway Bay, tel: 2895 3288; play@wabigallery.com), there are three reasons for wenge's popularity. The first is simply that the dark wood is well suited to the minimalist look. Second is the exoticism of the material, which comes from Congo swampland forest. The third is its sensuality. 'The colour is very beautiful,' says Lam. 'It's a dark wood, it's a bit unusual and it has a sophisticated colour - chocolate. Also, it's solid and heavy.'

Consumers apparently find the chunkiness of wenge alluring. But much of the wenge available is in reality just veneer, according to Paul Kember, who runs design firm K plus K (tel: 2541 6828) with his twin, Johnny. The pair generally use engineered veneer rather than timber because, like most hardwoods, wenge is rare. 'We prefer to use timbers we know are sustainable,' Paul says.

Giving his verdict on why, in one form or the other, the material is all the rage, he highlights its durability, which makes it good for flooring. Like Lam, he admires its luxurious looks. 'Wenge has a beautiful texture and it's a dense chocolatey brown timber - a bit like ebony,' he says.

Wenge has been used for centuries in Africa to make ritual masks and statues in honour of gods, so if you want to add a touch of mystique to your home, it appears to be ideal. But beware of it in the raw. Wenge dust can trigger reactions on the skin and in the eyes and respiratory system. Its toxic bark is used by hunters to stun fish for harvest. Essentially, like mahogany, it is poisonous.

And it is not as resilient as it appears: it fades if subjected to constant light.