For centuries, craftsmen have looked to wood as a resource for creativity. Versatile, sustainable, yet incredibly beautiful, it remains an all-time favorite among designers and aficionados.

The onset of the industrial revolution sounded the death knell for craftsmanship as traditional artisanal skills such as cabinetry, joinery and marquetry – passed down through generations – began to dwindle. In the early 1900s, the Arts and Crafts Movement starting in the late 19th century and the meticulous decorative work of highly stylized Art Deco furniture were overshadowed by both the efficiency and economy of machine manufacturing and molded man-made materials, which also cut out laborious finishing techniques.

In the 1990s, wood craft made a comeback in the form of the distinctive, austere designs of North America’s 18th century Shaker look (although the simple style was mainly the remit of kitchen furniture and cabinetry), reviving interest in American wood craft techniques, a patrimonial skill dating back to the pilgrims and beyond. Revered for its innovative joinery and simple elegance, the Shaker style remains an inspiration among modern furniture makers, particularly in the US and Europe. However, today’s designers are taking the beauty and versatility of wood even further in terms of skill, functionality and, of course, beauty.

North Carolina-based designer and furniture-maker Jacob Marks, ( hailed as one of the country’s top young designers, believes that the rise in wood craft and the artisan industry as a whole in the US, is a backlash against the throwaway culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “I think the novelty of a disposable culture has begun to erode. Many Americans are exhausted by wasteful consumption and realizing that the things that surround us are a reflection of our individual and collective priorities.”

However, it is not only the US that is waking up to the importance of traditional crafts and sustainable materials. The upside of the recent economic crisis is that consumers are putting a lot more thought – and outlay – into their purchases, opting for quality over quantity and, indeed, trends when buying objects for the home. The UK-based Jolyon Yates, ( ) New Zealand designer David Trubridge ( ) and Brazil’s Hugo França ( ) have all made a name for themselves, creating spectacular pieces crafted from natural and reclaimed woods that sit on the fence between art and furniture design, yet for all the right reasons. Expertly worked, with a profound respect for the material, as well as form, each object is a real investment piece. With a price tag of around $100,000 for França’s monolithic 20-foot long dining table, the ideal of sustainable design at Ikea prices still remains a distant dream. The value, however, both ecologically and in terms of durability is incomparable.

As Jacob Marks explains, “For me timber’s appeal as a medium is its intrinsic beauty and the fact that it is such a fundamental, essential, and ancient element of human existence. Plus, it’s fickle, which, from a technical standpoint, offers unending challenges (sometimes frustration too!). In terms of sustainability, I think it’s important to remember that timber is a renewable resource, if used responsibly. As a renewable resource, however, furniture-grade lumber is relatively slow to regenerate (it takes approximately 75-125 years for a high quality north American hardwood to reach maturity) so it is critical for us that our furniture capture an enduring aesthetic and sound craftsmanship, so that it can remain relevant and useful for at least 100 years.” Stringent laws on exotic wood imports and the establishment of regulatory bodies such as the Forest Stewardship Council, ( ) which has been controlling the conservation and management of the world’s forests for more than 15 years, make it easier than ever before for consumers to buy responsibly. Just as we have learned to seek out the earth-friendly and organic labels on foods in the supermarket, the FSC symbol guarantees sustainability.

In terms of wood manufacturing, Europe continues to lead the way in the high-end furniture market, due to the preserve of patrimonial manufacturing processes. In Scandinavia, designs penned by the most iconic names in design and architecture more than half a century ago remain best selling classics, due to the continual high quality production and craftsmanship of the manufacturers that first made them. Take Alvar Aalto’s 1933 Stool 60, or Hans J. Wegner’s 1949 Wishbone Chair, which are as visible in the home today as they are in any modern design museum. In Sweden, Gotland-based furniture maker G.A.D., ( ) employs age-old joinery techniques and solid materials, such as birch, oak and limestone, treated naturally with oils and soft soaps for durability. Even the fleeces used for upholstery are tanned using vegetable dyes. Due to the nature of production, pieces can’t always be bought off the shelf, but what’s a few weeks wait on an object of natural beauty that is built to last a lifetime and beyond?

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