Posted on 12/20/2012 2:58 PM by Grace Jeffers

Design historian Judith Gura’s latest book Sourcebook of Scandinavian Furniture: Designs for the Twenty-First Century is the quintessential reference book on this kind of modern furniture.  


Judith Gura's excellent book, "Sourcebook for Scandinavian Furniture". Image courtesy WW Norton.


Oresund Cabinet, design: Borge Mogensen, 1955, Pine and teak, producer: Karl Andersson. Image courtesy WW Norton.

But as someone who focuses on materials I had a few questions I wanted to ask her:

GJ: Why or how did teak and rosewood (but especially teak) become leitmotifs of Danish design? I find this strange because both species are exotic imports to those countries. 

JG: I haven't ever found any explanation beyond the fact that the Danes liked the quality of the woods. Teak in particular is very durable and termite-resistant. But another point is the fact that wood grains (of both of these) are especially appealing, and look good with natural oil finish (as opposed to lacquers or French polish), and natural finish was what the Danes were looking for.

GJ: I understand birch and ash--because the species grow there--but such devotion to the other two more expensive and exotic species baffle me. Can you shed any insight onto this?

JG: As for birch and ash, they are common in Scandinavian countries and the Danes were creating their own distinctive design aesthetic using regional materials.  

I would like my readers to see the bigger picture with the use of certain hardwoods. Let’s focus on teak here now.

Teak wood is prized for its straight grain, rich golden color, and because it is exceptionally durable. The wood contains high amounts of silica and natural oils, which makes it especially water, rot and insect repellant.

Teak is a tropical hardwood that is indigenous to south and southeast Asia, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Burma. While the teak species originated in these places it is now grown elsewhere. Teak is now cultivated on plantations in Africa, Mexico and Central America. This is an important distinction and one you should be acutely aware of, because the origin of your teak has enormous ramifications.  

Although use of plantation-grown teak is on the rise, the majority of teak still comes from the wild and these habitats are in decline. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), in the last 20 years teak forests worldwide have declined by 1.3 percent, or 385,000 hectares.

Read more at http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0328-hance_teak_decline.html#5qV81CGywrktU0A7.99 . This is where I beg you to proceed cautiously with your decision to specify teak. Today as much as one-third of the annual harvest of teak comes from the native forests of Burma. If you have heard of “Thai teak” it is actually Burmese teak that was logged by Thai loggers and hauled across the border.


Elephants piling teak in Burma, photo courtesy the University of Glasgow.


Burmese workers prepare teak logs in a wood yard in Yangon. Photograph: Barbara Walton/EPA. From www.guardian.co.uk.

The Thai government has prohibited further logging of teak within its borders due to the environmental damage teak logging has created. Sale of Burmese teak benefits the Burmese military government, which is famous for it’s human rights violations. Indonesia is the second most rapidly deforesting country in the world. Brazil is the first. Indonesia is notable for not stopping pervasive illegal logging which threatens plants and animal species. It has been predicted that the orangutan, which is native to Indonesia, will be extinct in the wild in about a decade because of illegal logging.

Due to the worldwide scarcity and issues associated with deforestation, FSC certified teak plantations have emerged in the last decade, in Africa, Ecuador, and the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and Mexico.  Plantation-grown teak is sustainable and legally logged, and there are no noticeable differences in grain, color or quality between it and Asiatic teak. Another plus is the geographic proximity of the Central American teak plantations. If you must use teak please make sure it is FSC certified, plantation grown lumber. If you are not careful you could very easily be involved in problems you did not intend to participate in.

 
 A section of a FSC plantation-grown teak log. Photo courtesy Tectomec.

For more information on specific wood species please check out: www.rainforestrelief.org; www.mongabay.com/; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service www.fws.gov/. Check out www.thestatementblog.com for more information about Judith Gura's book.