If I could I wood

The American Hardwood Export Council and Benchmark's upcoming event for the London Design Festival has Young Guns designing for the Big Guns

If Norman Foster were to design a pencil sharpener, what would it look like? This very question is currently being asked by young Japanese designer Norie Matsumoto, who was charged with the task of producing one for the global architect as part of the American Hardwood Export Council’s ‘Wish List’; where up-and-coming young designers were paired-up with ten famous architects and designers asking them to produce specific one-off designs for each of them using American Hardwoods and with the assistance of Sir Terence Conran’s crack team of craftsmen, at his state-of-the-art ‘Benchmark’ workshops in Berkshire.

The designers have their work cut out as there are some heavy hitters needing to get their wishes fulfilled. Sir Richard and Ab Rogers want a ladder from Xenia Moseley, John Pawson wants a triangular table, a slanted door and a hook from Studio Areti, Alison Brooks wants kitchen stools from Felix de Pass; RCA dean Alex de Rijke is looking for a dining table, whilst Zaha Hadid is challenging designer Gareth Neal to make the tableware that might go on it.  Constructed from American hardwoods over five days last week in the workshops, the final results from all ten designers and studios will be displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of the 2014 London Design Festival.

Win Assakul and Amanda Levete
Win Assakul and Amanda Levete

For Win Assakul, commissioned by Amanda Levete to create a 3m long, 200mm wide fruit bowl cum cheesboard for her 5m long dining table, it meant going well out of his comfort zone. The reversible, six-piece bowl/board, in the manner of the architect and Future Systems before that, should have perhaps been CNC cut from a 3-D software, but Assakul thought that wouldn’t have been a challenge. ‘I wanted to be able to see the hand of the maker in the final piece,’ he says. ‘By doing it without CNC I could bring an individuality to the piece.’ But doing it meant a crash course in the cutting and sanding skills that the Benchmark team have spent years honing to produce a one-off extendable, reversible table piece that is flat as a pancake on one face and luxuriantly curved on the other. With each piece slotting into a walnut box as if to appear solid when fully stacked, for Assakul it meant a baptism by fire in woodworking skills from Conran’s master craftsmen.

Barnby and Day table for Alex de Rijke
Barnby and Day table for Alex de Rijke
Nathalie de Leval shed for Paul Smith
Nathalie de Leval shed for Paul Smith
Nathalie de Leval shed for Paul Smith
Nathalie de Leval shed for Paul Smith
Nathalie de Leval at work on the shed floor
Nathalie de Leval at work on the shed floor

Despite her evident skills in woodworking, the challenge was no less demanding for cabinet maker Nathalie de Leval, who said she let her eyes go all the way to the bottom of designer Paul Smith’s wish list before she settled on her challenge- a garden shed. But this is something you’d never see at B&Q, basing its 10’x10’x10’ dimension on that of Paul Smith’s first shop in Nottingham. Despite its size, there’s an initial air of normality to the structure, covered in rough-cut, heat-treated ash weatherboarding on both roof and walls- a treatment that apparently makes it, she says, ‘smell like coffee’. ‘But I also wanted it to be different, to represent the idea of a garden shed as a refuge- a place not just for hiding in, but for viewing too,’ says de Leval, resulting in a space, that once entered through the timber door, reveals a full height wall of glass opposite, giving views out to the landscape. ‘Not only that,’ she adds, ‘It rotates too!’- a homage, she claims, to Bernard Shaw’s rotating writers hut, whilst two side windows provide cross-ventilation to the structure- a necessary concession to prevent overheating. ‘There were lots of engineering issues that needed to be solved by Arup regarding stability and ventilation, meaning a lot of proposals like roof flaps,’ says de Leval, ‘But I was really keen that we didn’t over-complicate things. Despite being a crafted thing, I wanted it to just remain, well…a shed.’

The American Hardwood Export Council and Benchmark's ‘The Wish List’ will be on show at the V&A museum from the 13th-21st September.