Curly birch & the nature of figured wood

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Master's thesis
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Master’s Programme in Contemporary Design
Curly Birch & the Nature of Figured Wood is an exploration of the evocative power of figured wood and its acute relevance at the dawn of the “Age of Timber”. Rather than explore figured wood generally, this thesis focuses on the historical and metaphorical expressive potential of the unique birch variant Curly birch (Betula pendula var. carelica) through critical historical case studies and a practical design component. The natural world is the starting point for any understanding of the earth and our place on it. And, perhaps, nothing has help us find our place more than the tree. Yet, our era is defined by a consensus of crises, disease driven tree extinctions, mass deforestation and an astonishing loss of greenery in urban centers. Simultaneously, we are living at the dawn of what many are calling the “Age of Timber”. An age defined by increased and novel construction possibilities ushered in by engineered wood. But the seemingly simple relation between the fall of the tree and the rise of wood risks creating a distorted view of both. Nowhere is their connection more apparent than in the grain of figured wood. This thesis is divided into three acts. The first act begins with a description of Curly birch and its unique char-acteristics followed by a cursory introduction to terminology around wood before turning to a reflection on figure in figured wood. The second act takes three case studies to examine. It chronicles what can broadly be described as highwater marks from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries demonstrating the mediative role of figured wood. Moments where figured wood figures prominently in the imagination of people and gives voice to their unique social-cultural, political and economic contexts. Not merely moments were figured woods are used but where they are put to use. They examine how depictions and employment of figured wood at the onset of the industrial revolution reveal misgivings about the changing perspective of nature. The second movement engages the long-standing appreciation of Curly birch and the national pitch it took in Finland at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The research focuses on the unique contribution of Curly birch in the Finnish independence movement and its immediate afterlives. The third movement reflects on the place of Curly birch today absent its previous metaphorical utility in society.The third act is the practical component of the thesis and concludes with a discussion on the relationship between the theoretical findings and my own creative process and introduces the Kudos Collection. The works are inspired by the interwoven wood grains of Curly birch are embody a creative exploration into the symbolics of figured wood and an expression of the origins of wood as tree. The collection consists of three pieces: a lo table, a hi chair, and a split tray. In many ways Curly Birch & the Nature of Figured Wood is both homage and advocacy for the continued and attentive use of Curly birch. It is also intended to advance alternative ways to understand and relate to materials and postulate on design’s role in communicating and bringing forth those alternatives. In communicating the metaphorical connotations and historical potential of the figured wood, Curly birch, I wanted to convey something I learned along the way – that the longstanding joy we take from the narratives within objects designed from natural materials is the same joy we derive from the stories in nature itself.
Lohmann, Julia
Thesis advisor
Lauterbach, Gloria
Paakkanen, Mikko
figured wood, curly birch, nature, materiality, craft, timber
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