Furniture doesn't have to look like the equivalent of socked feet in Jesus sandals just because its makers have shown concern for the planet, says Robert S Silver for idFX magazine.
It's a tough life being a furniture maker. Your unwritten contract with the world says that you are engaged in the business of improving people's domestic and working environments. However, the environmentalists tell you that the act of manufacturing may endanger the planet. The choice is to either produce goods at the earth's expense or stop manufacturing and let people suffer the consequences.
Global warming is a term we're all familiar with, and few of us would willingly want to engage in practices that are not eco-friendly. In the arena of furniture, many craftspeople are seeking ways of working that have minimal impact on the environment. They want their work to express a sense of responsibility to something beyond simply making the best furniture they know how - and that may well involve recycling urban jetsam in the best traditions of objet trove.
David Colwell set up Trannon Furniture, based in mid Wales, nearly 30 years ago and is now rightly considered one of the pioneers of sustainable design and clean production. His furniture is made from locally produced ash thinnings grown in sustainable forests, which are then trimmed and steam bent. The process eliminates the need for kiln-drying, saving on energy use, and actually makes the wood stronger.
Colwell is 'passionate about forestry management. We use ash because its stocks are easily replenished and we use thinnings [young trees that are cleared by the forester to allow light to reach the main body of trees and which normally goes to waste] because it gives a further income to the forestry community.'
As for Trannon furniture, the ranges, which incorporate curves and triangular shapes, include sofas, director's chairs, sideboards, and stacking chairs. Their elegant geometry is striking.
The company's clients appreciate the fact that their furniture, as well as being beautifully made, is not produced from scarce resources that require heavy energy use to manufacture: 'I think most people now have some concern for the environment and if you give them a choice between eco-friendly and non-eco-friendly products, they'll opt for the former.'
Guy Martin is a furniture maker and is the man many think should have won last year's Jerwood Furniture prize. He studied sculpture at St Martin's and then he worked for sculptor Anthony Caro from '65-'71 before finally setting up his own furniture workshop in 1984. There he made what he described as 'furniture driven by an ignorant and arrogant philosophy'. That was then. The philosophy he practices now involves being part of, and sourcing his materials from, the environment in which he lives.
Were a genie to transport him to Australia he would work with the materials he found there. As it is, he lives in rural west Dorset, where he has access to willow wood and ash thinnings. With these raw materials and a bucket of nails he makes furniture influenced by the American vernacular tradition of stick furniture - developed by the early settlers. No glue, no varnish (time delivers its own patina, he says), just wood and nails, from which he makes chairs, rockers, tables, shelves and lecterns.
From one point of view, Trannon and Martin automatically start from pole position when lining up in the eco-stakes. They are working with wood, which in the case of many species is a easily renewable resource - indeed this fact must be a comfort to all those making furniture from wood. Rod Wales, of East Sussex-based Wales and Wales, does very occasionally use exotic hardwoods, such as iroko, an African tree that has a light coloured wood. No, don't tut. He says sometimes there is no viable alternative among the temperate hardwoods, but the trick is to buy such timber from certified sources with a policy of replanting.
For those whose material of choice is not wood, life can be more trying. There is a ready-made burden of guilt to be carried by anyone using finite materials. Some have opted to make one-off pieces by recycling jetsam. Their tradition is that of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters who discovered the alchemy of transforming urban detritus into art, a tradition continued into our own times by sculptors like Tony Crag. But make no mistake, that was all about art, not the craft of furniture.
It is Jane Atfield, who graduated from the RCA in 1992, who, perhaps more than anyone else, has bridged the two worlds of art and furniture. She developed a method of turning old detergent bottles into a kind of plastic chipboard. Instead of becoming landfill, they became furniture. Then she made chairs from stacks of industrial felt, and Geisha screens from faulty yard rulers. Recently she has been wrapping straw bails in tarpaulins to make childproof seating. She is also involved in a project in the north of Scotland to consider new uses for bamboo, and says one answer is to make benches. This recent work suggests Atfield might be making a move towards working with sustainable crops and away from recycling consumer products.
Meanwhile, from his house backing onto an east London junior school - where he is artist in residence - Darcy Turner is committed to reusing waste, old newspapers, to be precise. Trained at the London College of Furniture, he rolls papers into loose tubes, brushing them with a slick of wallpaper paste and feeding them through a home-made gizmo resembling a giant cigarette roller. The result is hard papier-mache@ rods which he binds together into furniture, using cable ties.
These days Turner is making less furniture and producing more sculpture. However, he's a frequent visitor to schools, where he shows children how to make useful things from newspapers. I took my daughter Zoe to see him and she was put to work making a stool. Meanwhile, he told me that he does accept commissions, and that he works with newspaper because 'it's a good material'. A couple of hours later Zoe had a stool. Turner stood on it. Zoe looked anxious, but it took his weight with ease.
Even old oil drums can be transformed into contemporary furniture. Sculptor turned furniture designer Deborah Sadler has produced the Urban Icons range which turns this ultimate symbol of industrial society into useful articles like storage bins, tables and kitchen units. So you see, all it takes is imagination.