After the boom years of steel, glass, polymers and other materials, the demands on contemporary furniture have shifted dramatically: sustainability, durability and carbon footprint are just some of the key factors that now drive sales. And the industry has responded with a material that has been in use for thousands of years – timber – but with a new version of this traditional material – a version that saves both material and resources, thanks to technical innovation. Against this backdrop, "Furniture Design 2.0" restores the natural look to our homes and our living and working environment.
A history of the furniture industry
Since the birth of furniture design, people have sought to create shapes and contours that are aesthetic and serve a purpose. "Furniture design" strives to meet the requirements of purpose and person, while optimising use of currently available technologies.
However, increasing industrialisation and a shift in economic means effected fundamental changes in production techniques. Not only was it now possible to mass produce furniture cost effectively, it opened the door to new methods of processing available materials. A milestone in this process was the triumphant success of "bentwood". Master carpenter, Michael Thonet, developed a procedure of bending beechwood with steam and shaping them into chairs. Worldwide, "Chair No. 14" is one of the most successful products in the history of industrial mass production and over 50 million chairs have been sold to date.
After World War I, one of the most influential currents in modern furniture design was Bauhaus. Designers like Marcel Breuer or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as well as new materials like steel tubes, glass, plywood and aluminium, had a huge impact on the construction of contemporary furniture.
After World War II, the range of new materials was further expanded to include plastics, chrome, perspex, lacquer and injection moulding. It was against this backdrop that Charles and Ray Eames brought their iconic "Lounge Chair" to market - still highly sought-after to this day - and Harry Bertoia wowed design-oriented clientèle with his innovative "Side Chair", combining welded steel with an organic form to create a work of art.
The plastics boom was only halted by the oil crisis in 1973 - no longer seen as a viable material for furniture production, plastic furniture soon as good as disappeared entirely from the market, to be quickly replaced by laminated timber, even cardboard ("Wiggle Side Chair" by Frank Gehry). This shift was accompanied by another success story when the IKEA furniture store began selling take-away/self-build furniture at bargain prices and Billy shelves introduced particleboard and veneer to the world's living rooms.
It took until the 1990s for concepts like recycling and sustainability to ease their way into the collective consciousness.
A mash-up of megatrends
At the beginning of the new millennium, we are seeing new megatrends that go far beyond general furniture design and strike at the heart of our society. The primary catalyst for these trends is a rapidly growing population with the resulting increase in energy consumption and ever-growing demand for raw materials. This has generated rising public awareness of today's environmental challenges and the need for sustainability in order to ensure that meeting current needs does not endanger the ability of future generations to maintain the same living standard.
The effects of an increasingly digitized world are now reaching into every corner of our lives, including the home, not least due to the Internet of Things. Digital technology continues to expand its influence, with smartphones and tablets meaning we are almost constantly connected and even objects are networked. The connected home is merging with the workplace – home workers are now a long established part of the workforce – which has motivated interest for multifunctional furniture that sets new standards in terms of design, style and functionality.
Globalisation has seen our world shrinking and has changed many people's way of life. Love or work will now cause the average worker to move four and a half times in their life – and of course the furniture has to go too. This means that, ideally, we need furniture that is robust and sustainable, easy to dismantle and lightweight.
One megatrend that runs counter to globalisation is that of "individualisation". Increasing individualisation also affects the demand for products and interest in customisation. Customers are increasingly demanding products that stress their individuality – ways to stand out from the crowd and express their personality, including the way they furnish their homes. The extent to which markets and manufacturers can satisfy this demand for individualised products will increasingly determine its competitiveness – in the meantime, customers are getting creative and the DIY trend is booming.
Timber is dead – Long Live Timber!
Taken as a whole, these trends clearly indicate that there is only one material that is able to meet all these demands long-term – timber! In addition to its ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and retain carbon, wood doesn't need to be manufactured – whereas the production of steel/glass, etc. releases many greenhouse gases. Timber is without doubt one of the most environmentally friendly materials available – extraordinarily versatile and naturally renewable, it has a low carbon footprint, is sustainable and helps protect the environment for future generations. Furthermore, when it reaches the end of its life cycle, it can be converted to energy without the need for laborious and costly recycling.
Timber can also have positive health effects: various studies confirm the soothing effects of timber and its ability to naturally regulate the room climate. Timber also comes up trumps in terms of durability and flexibility. And should you grow tired of its natural surface at some point, wooden furniture and fittings can be simply sanded down and oiled/varnished/waxed/painted as desired for a completely new look.
However, material must not just be attractive to the client – ideally it should also be aesthetically appealing to the carpenter/supplier. As well as cost efficiency and availability, a key factor that contributes to the appeal of a material in the eyes of furniture manufacturers and interior fitters is easy workability.
And this is where many conventional timber products fall down – the high level of wastage and the production process mean that hardwood is often just too expensive for many consumers, and many are not attracted to the typical "plywood look" with a veneer surface. And particleboard and HDF/MDF also needs to be finished with veneers, laminates or edgebanding - which of course compromises its "natural look".
But the industry is armed and ready to respond to the shift in customer demand and has a new and innovative material up its sleeve and – thanks to high-tech production procedures – it is able to continually replenish its stock of timber. And its trump card is laminated veneer lumber (LVL): logs are peeled to create veneers, a production process with little to no waste or hazardous by-products. The veneers are then quality sorted, dried and pressed and glued into sheet or beam-shaped billets. This production process is not only energy, cost and resource efficient, it brings a completely new look to the decorative market. The surfaces are no longer characterised by the wood grain, rather the fine lines offer a stripped down and more subtle aesthetic. The minimalism of LVL renders it universal and durable – a classic, understated look that is timeless. LVL allows designers to express themselves more freely through designs that employ a wide variety of other timbers, materials, shapes and colours.
And as a result of this manufacturing process, certain wood species like beechwood are currently experiencing a Renaissance in the furniture and construction industry. Beechwood is the most common type of timber found in Europe and, until now, was primarily used for heat production – with the accompanying negative impact on the environment. But this robust hardwood offers huge potential in the furniture and fittings industry.
Application examples for beech laminated veneer lumber
For more information on beechwood and laminated veneer lumber, please visit www.baubuche.com