Thermally-modified American red oak is celebrated by South African designers Stephen Wilson and Phillip Hollander in a sensational, gravity-defying play on their contemporary folk style
South Africans enjoy a great indoor/outdoor lifestyle, so it made a lot of sense to Houtlander creatives, Phillip Hollander and Stephen Wilson to take their highly successful contemporary folk style furniture range and bring it outside. To do so they partnered with the American Hardwood Export Council to explore the groundbreaking thermally-modified American red oak, which has been developed to be durable and weather-resistant.
Houtlander is only a few years old, but they have made a massive impact on both the local South African and international market – launching at 100% Design South Africa in 2017 where they won best furniture design for their Coronation Bench, they rapidly went on to exhibit with the world-renowned design gallery Southern Guild, won the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019 with the Interdependence Two bench, a twisted slatted seat for two people to sit intimately facing each other, and have recently exhibited in the Rossana Orlandi Gallery in Milan and at the Grand Palais in Paris.Houtlander will now be producing a commercial outdoor range which was launched in Johannesburg at 100% Design South Africa 2019, but the real showstopper was a tribute to the wood from which the furniture is made – the Preservation Bench.
“We are a company that strives to be as sustainable as possible – we don’t use screws or mechanical fixings in our production – just good traditional joinery,” explains Phillip. “We not only want to design furniture that is useful and lasting, we only work with timber that is honourably sourced. We love the story of how American hardwood is grown – how it is harvested – how the forest re-generates itself – it is a beautiful thing.”
Houtlander is known for its modern take on spindle furniture and the two designers of the Preservation Bench have re-worked their signature style to celebrate the sapling growing from the forest floor, seeking the light and growing up towards the canopy. Three grounded benches curve into one gravity-defying twisted form that seemingly disappears into the air.
“The Preservation Bench is an expression of the fact that the material we are using in our furniture comes out of the air – it is carbon which has been absorbed out of the air by the living forest and converted into timber,” explains Stephen. “The thermally-modified red oak is so counter-intuitive for someone who has been working with solid timbers for any length of time. All of your training and experience prepares you to expect the timber to behave in certain ways, that it’s going to warp and change shape, that it can’t come in to contact with moisture. All of your construction and design processes take these material properties into consideration – this is why all wooden outdoor furniture has the same loose plank -mechanically fastened construction. With thermally-modified oak, however, this is not the case, the material does not move or warp, it is perfectly happy when coming in contact with moisture, since it doesn’t absorb it at all. The stability of this material in the presence of moisture – unique to this form of timber – have allowed us to create a form hitherto unimaginable in an outdoor setting.”
Thermal-modification takes a non-durable hardwood and makes it suitable for exterior use and adds dimensional stability through a relatively simple, chemical-free and low environmental impact process of heating the timber to a very high temperature in a vacuum kiln. In American hardwoods, the process works best in ash, red oak, soft maple and tulipwood, making them ideal for decking and cladding applications, as well as for outdoor furniture and shade structures.
Roderick Wiles, American Hardwood Export Council Regional Director adds: “Not only is the Preservation Bench a masterpiece in timber design and craftsmanship, it also has a minimal environmental footprint, which speaks to the inspiration behind it. We have calculated that all the red oak used to make the bench would be replaced through natural regeneration in the U.S. hardwood forest in less than 1 second. Additionally, while in use, it is estimated that the Preservation Bench will keep 635 kg of CO2 equivalent out of the atmosphere.”
The Preservation Bench and new outdoor furniture range were on display at 100% Design South Africa 2019, which ran from the 7th to 11th of August in Johannesburg and, once again, Houtlander picked up the 100% Design Award for Best Furniture Design at the show.