American cherry and maple twist and bend to form ‘The Invisible Store of Happiness’

From the American Hardwood Export Council: 

The Invisible Store of Happiness is a three-meter high ode to wood and craftsmanship. The installation involved two of the UK’s brightest talents – furniture designer/maker Sebastian Cox and artist Laura Ellen Bacon – who took three months to craft the structure out of American hardwoods.

Showcased for the Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) in the archway in front of the historic Museum of the Order of St John in London from May 19 – 21, 2015, the dramatic installation was hand-crafted out of American soft maple and cherry and consisted of a mighty steam bent frame that gave way to thinner, weave-able strips manipulated to twist and flow into a whirlpool of texture and shape.

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has supported the project to allow experimentation with these timbers and to celebrate their potential. Working with Sebastian Cox, one of the UK’s foremost makers, challenges the way wood works in a way nobody else does. And Laura Ellen Bacon, with her artistic sensibility, coupled with her wonderful sculptural work in willow, is the perfect complement to Sebastian’s approach. Sebastian Cox conceived the project and led by his growing passion for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), took it to AHEC as a proposal. He then asked Laura Ellen Bacon, whose poetic willow sculptures he has always admired, to join him for the project.



“The Invisible Store for me has become a store of many things,” says Sebastian Cox. “It started out as a store of our shared passion of making, but as the project unfolded it became a store of much more; education, ambition, pride, late nights, steam, experimentation, unknown quantities, passion, cups of tea, swear words, and so on! The whole thing has been the biggest thing we’ve ever undertaken, and we couldn’t have done it without Laura’s creativity, experience and calm nature.”

The maple and cherry have been crafted into an elliptical-shape frame that showcases fine craftsmanship and impeccable cabinetry on a grand scale with huge arcs of steam bent cherry wood, hand-jointed together in mostly glue-less draw-bore mortice and tenon joints. Through complex machinery the components of this solid frame are effectively shredded into strips and made supple and weave-able from time spent soaking in the River Thames beside Sebastian’s Woolwich workshop. These strips were boldly manipulated by hand, flowing and twisting into the space to create a whirlpool of texture and shape, all held within its mighty external frame.

“As a sculptor, I have enjoyed the refinement of form that has been possible with these woods; allowing the curves and stability formed in the head to find their feet in the finished, grounded form,” says Laura Ellen Bacon. “I know this to be a true collaboration: both Sebastian and I have merged our language of form and function, like merging two colors to acquire a new shade. For my part, I was hoping to find a way to distill the act of making into a solid form of containment, perhaps a little like blending a perfume and pouring it into a vessel.  With our use of scale, solidity and precision, we have been able to use the wood as the essence.”

Cox is best known for making handmade furniture with sustainable materials from the UK’s woodlands, but his passion for the progressive research AHEC is conducting into Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) led him to approach AHEC. Using the latest LCA modeling techniques developed by thinkstep (formerly PE International), the Invisible Store of Happiness has been environmentally profiled and the carbon footprint of the whole structure, on a cradle-to-grave basis, is just 173kg CO2 equivalent – that’s less than an iPad Air 2. The hardwood forest resource in America is so vast that the wood used in the Invisible Store of Happiness will have been replaced in the time it takes to walk from one end of the installation to the other.

“We can use data from AHEC and the US Forest Service to calculate how quickly timbers we use get replaced in the U.S. forests through natural regeneration. I was fascinated to see the speed at which the timber I used in the Wish List project (for the London Design Festival 2014) was regenerated in the American woodlands. I believe the entire design community should be more aware of LCA and we should be dedicated to measuring the environmental impact of the things we design and make. Similarly, people should be able to know the true environmental impact of the things they buy and have in their home. Projects like this demonstrate the importance of things like LCA,” adds Cox.

The challenge for the CDW installation was to raise the profile of maple and cherry, both beautiful and yet under-appreciated American hardwoods, and to create a three-dimensional form to communicate the environmental benefits of using them.

AHEC wanted to challenge perceptions of hardwood, both as a material and as a sustainable and growing resource. With this installation in one of the most important locations – the archway at the Order of Saint John – created by two such passionate and interesting designers, AHEC has been able to create an environment where people are choosing to use American hardwoods because of a better understanding of the material. That understanding encompasses everything from craftsmanship to environmental concerns.

“This collaboration exploits the qualities of wood. The exterior of the piece speaks of its rigidity, its structural qualities; the interior tells of how this may be rendered flexible, descriptive, expressive and loose. The project also pushed the boundaries of what is technically possible with wood given that one of the challenges for wood right now is embracing innovation. Sebastian and Laura shared their findings throughout the process, not just with AHEC, but with a team of interns and students. In this way, the project embodied not just the joy of making, of fruitful collaboration and focused endeavor, but also advocacy and education,” concludes Roderick Wiles, AHEC director, Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Oceania.

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