Against the Grain
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Innovation, finely crafted—Like the interior of the 2014 Impala

By Alice Yoo

The Chevrolet Impala has been dramatically redesigned: with an exterior characterized by smooth, graceful lines and an interior filled with exquisite details. Inside the 2014 model, you’ll find a carefully crafted dual-cockpit instrument panel with beautifully burnished wood-grain trim, a design element that exemplifies modern sophistication and styling. Just as the Impala is innovative and forward-thinking, so is “Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

Featuring nearly 90 installations and sculptures, the show (which originated at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina) brings together 57 cutting-edge artists and designers from all over the world. Though each piece is unique, these contemporary artists have one thing in common: the ability to create extraordinary things using an ordinary medium. Challenging the way we traditionally think of wood, the exhibition not only highlights the woodworking ingenuity that’s alive today; it also makes us appreciate the natural beauty of one of the world’s oldest materials.

We talked with curator Lowery Stokes about wood as an artistic medium and why it will always be seen as such a premium material.

 

What are the different characteristics of the wood that’s featured in this exhibition?

Since the exhibition focuses on unpainted wood, the texture and grain of the wood used by these designers, craftspeople and artists is what stands out, as well as the way they work the wood either to complement its inherent values or to work against those values. An example is Ursula von Rydingsvard’s wall sculpture, where she glues together 4x4 cedar beams—literally foursquare—and then hacks them into sensuous organic forms that she finishes with graphite powder. Another is the Jeroen Verhoven piece, where the forms are created digitally with CNC technology.

 

What makes wood so appealing to artists and furniture designers as a medium and material?

I suspect it’s the wood’s long-proven versatility. Why abandon a good thing? It has great possibilities. One can also surmise some primeval connection with the forest. Plus, there’s wood’s accessibility and availability as a medium: You don’t need to do much to start working with it.

What is the relationship between form and function?

That’s a very modernist idea—truth to function and material. The spirit and approach to wood in this exhibition seems to go beyond that restriction: a cabinet with open slats for walls (Sebastian Errazuriz), furniture covered with vinyl that’s printed with scenes that have been digitized with wood textures (Gary Carsley), a player piano roll laser-cut from scans of the markings of birch bark (Marie Elena Gonzalez). Dare we call this “postmodern”?

What is the appeal of burnished wood trim in the interior of cars?

A sense of luxury that’s comparable to sumptuous wood paneling in the home.

What’s on the horizon in terms of woodworking? Where do you see woodworking going in the near future?

I suppose the possibilities are as endless as the human imagination. The caveat is whether we can initiate and sustain conservation, and replenish our forests worldwide. Each of the artists in the exhibition is aware of the need to preserve our forests and is committed to using found, felled and otherwise repurposed wood or wood elements.

You can see this incredibly diverse collection of artworks at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York through September 15, 2013.

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Alice Yoo is founder and editor-in-chief of My Modern Metropolis, a place where trendspotters and art enthusiasts come to connect over creative ideas—a must-visit culture destination. Follow her on Twitter @mymodernmet or @aliceyoo.