Where Does Design Come From?

Go behind the scenes on the manufacturing of surface materials

08/01/2015 By Kenn Busch

When you look at a decorative laminate panel with a woodgrain design, do you ever wonder: “Is this a literal reproduction of a piece of solid wood? Or was it designed in a lab to look like solid wood?”

The answer? Yes.

What you see on that conference table, headboard or wall panel might just be the end product of a process that began in Milan, Cologne, New York, or rural Pennsylvania, and finished in a design studio in Germany, Japan, or the U.S.

Decorative surface introductions aren’t conjured in a vacuum. They’re created by designers who constantly scour the globe’s design exhibitions and showrooms for trends in commercial and residential furniture and interiors. These skilled observers and their teams have been watching different markets for years, if not decades, and are tuned into subtle shifts in species and grain structure changes, coloring and finishes, combinations and applications.

They also know their woods, and where to find them.

“I spend time at lumber yards and with lumber brokers,” said Mark Smith, senior design manager for a décor printer with facilities on four continents. Décor printers combine art and technology to create printed papers with incredible detail and realism. (See sidebar below.)

“There’s a lot of reclaimed or repurposed wood out there,” Smith added, “and it’s not all just barn wood. There are a lot of old structural beams in both rural and industrial areas of the northern east coast—some of it over 100 years old—in woods you just can’t get anymore with any useable quality. Chestnut is a great example. Recent growth is all wormy, not as usable, but what comes out of these beams is clear.”

When Smith visits lumber yards and brokers, however, he’s not just randomly picking woods; he’s armed with what he’s seen the Milan Furniture Fair (iSaloni), the International Furniture Fair (IMM) in Cologne, and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York. Major office/commercial furniture fairs like NeoCon and Germany’s Orgatec are also important destinations for Smith and fellow trend-watchers.

Sometimes shifts in trends are easy to spot. For instance, demand for cherry, which had been very popular over the last few years, has waned, he explained.

“It’s a beautiful wood, naturally red-orange, but red as a color is not selling much right now. Everything is heading toward greys, tans, browns, and even silver. Ipé, which is 368 percent harder than teak, turns light grey with age. There’s a lot of recovered ipé from the boardwalks along the east coast, and some of it made its way into furniture I saw at ICFF this year.

“You can’t go anywhere without seeing walnut right now,” Smith continued. “In small planks it’s very popular for office furniture and hospitality design. More rustic walnuts, with more grain character, are seen in kitchens, healthcare, hospitality, and offices. Quarter-sawn looks, which have fewer cathedrals and knots, are very attractive for office furniture. When creating a laminate design, too many knots can present design challenges at the edges of desks and tables.”

Butternut is also trending, said Smith, although mostly under its nickname “white walnut.” “It’s a lighter version of the same species,” he said. “All nut trees, butternut, hazelnut, walnut, are from the same family and have similar appearances, just like fruitwoods.

“Another big trend now is mixing different species of wood in the same piece of furniture. I recently saw flamed maple and red elm on the front of walnut cabinets, as well as other combinations,” he added. “When you see several examples like this from different suppliers around the country and around the world, you know there’s something going on. It’s not necessarily that they’re watching each other—it’s more of a natural, self-driven trend.”

Woodgrain imperfections are another regionally specific trend, currently more influential in Europe than in North America, particularly the contrast between sapwood and heartwood in a single panel. Every log actually consists of these two kinds of wood. Heartwood is the non-active or dormant center of a tree, usually distinguishable from the outer portion by its darker color. Sapwood is the lighter-colored living wood found in the outer portion of a tree.

“This is what I call the ‘ideation phase,’” said Smith. “In addition to surveying the exhibitions and visiting showrooms, we read design blogs and magazines, and we get information from our lumber brokers about trends in the species they’re selling. I’m also very active in the Color Marketing Group, where I get a lot of input and insight both within and beyond the furniture markets.”

shopping for lumber
“From there we start the buying phase, where we visit several wood brokers and lumber yards and start looking at logs and lumber,” Smith explained. “This means sorting through literally tons of wood, logs, planks, as well as reclaimed wood and beams, in several locations.

“It’s more of an art than a science, and experience is key,” he continued. “Most of the time we’re buying based on the trends we’ve been observing and what we hear from our brokers. On some occasions we’ll invite a customer from flooring and furniture companies with us, if they’re looking for something very specific.”

At the wood brokers, logs and beams are sliced into boards and run through a planer to expose the true beauty of the raw woodgrain. Pouring denatured alcohol onto the surface then makes the grain, color, and flare (or flame) pop.

“How much we end up buying depends on our goal for that species or design,” Smith said. “If it’s a clear, linear structure, we can create a design from 100 board-feet or even less. If we want a finished design with a lot of character, we need more virgin material, up to 200 board-feet, to ensure we have as many of the natural variations to work with as possible. This year we bought a dozen different wood species.”

capturing wood’s essence
Once the wood has been purchased, it’s turned over to furniture craftsmen employed by the printers, who prepare it for scanning.

“They really know wood, carpentry, and furniture making, and understand how to reveal the essential character of each species,” said Smith. “Depending on how you cut it and sand it, you can bring out different aspects of the wood’s character. Generally we don’t stain or finish it, because that actually reduces the quality of the scan. It’s best to capture it in its virgin state; you can add finish and color effects later in the editing process.

“Plus, we archive the lumber we buy in case we want to use it again,” he added. “Once you’ve modified its natural look, it’s much harder to reuse.”

Large flatbed scanners are used to capture the natural color and grain structure, flakes and rays, and naturally occurring “flare” or “grain pop.” The technical term for the 3-D iridescent flare effect is chatoyancy, borrowed from gemology to describe the cat-eye effect of certain stones.

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