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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Teak Wood

Teak wood armchair, 1945. (Image courtesy of frankandoliver)

Detail of a Teak armchair designed by Finn Juhl, 1945. (Image courtesy of frankandoliver)

Scandinavian Modern furniture is often associated with teak, the ultra-durable hardwood from Southeast Asia. Before their discovery of teak, Scandinavian furniture designers used softer woods, like pine, which is native to the region. Teak is considered by many to be an ideal material for furniture because it’s one of the strongest woods, and at the same time relatively light. Its inherent color and oil gives it a soft, natural sheen, which mirrors the Modern emphasis on truth to materials and functionality.

Finn Juhl-designed teak bookshelf. (Image courtesy of frankandoliver)

Teak bookshelf, designed by Finn Juhl, 1950. (Image courtesy of frankandoliver)

With the technological innovations of synthetic quick-drying glue and bent plywood, Scandinavian designers created beautifully simple pieces that revolutionized furniture design. Unlike their German modernist counterparts in the Bauhaus movement, Scandinavian designers never warmed to widespread use of metal, perhaps because it lacked “hygge” or “fika” the Scandinavian concept loosely translated as ‘coziness.’

Teak elephant designed by Kay Bojesen. (Image courtesy of Modcats)

Teak elephant, circa 1951, designed by Kay Bojesen. (Image courtesy of Modcats)

As there is only a very limited supply of sustainably harvested teak, there is even more reason to seek out these vintage pieces – furniture with classic style made from an incredibly durable material. Teak will not warp in cold or heat, is resistant to rot and impervious to infestation – it can remain outdoors for up to 10 years with no damage. Teak turns an ash grey color when exposed to the elements but with a little bit of wood oil its lustrous hue returns immediately.

Americans commonly refer to Scandinavian modern as ‘mid-century Danish’. In fact the origins of this design aesthetic are wider than the tiny peninsula nation and have their roots much early in the 20th century. The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who began designing in the 1920s is often called the “Father of Scandinavian Modern”. The confabulation of the two terms can be attributed to the fact that Danish designers were the most prolific and the most reliant on teak. Denmark was also the chief European importer of teak in the 1950s.

Sam Maloof, 1953. (Image courtesy of The Furniture Of Sam Maloof)

Sam Maloof with his family, 1953. (Image courtesy of The Furniture Of Sam Maloof)

The many Danish designers who used teak include Grete Jalk, one of the movement’s only female designers and Kay Bojesen, who made teak bowls, teak toys and teak children’s furniture.  Finn Juhl, often attributed with bringing Scandinavian style to the masses in America, is famous for his teak furniture.

Scandinavian designers witnessed a tremendous response to their work at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair – so much so that American furniture manufacturers fell over themselves recreating these designs. The post-war American public was ravenous for modern home furnishings. American manufacturers were keen to emphasize their designs “authenticity” and often worked with Scandinavian designers.

Finn Juhl-designed teak armchair. (Image courtesy of frankandoliver)

Teak armchair, designed by Finn Juhl, 1945. (Image courtesy of frankandoliver)

The American designer Sam Maloof was also fond of using teak. Although he was often branded a modernist, he considered himself a woodworker first and foremost. When he was approached by industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss, who wanted to manufacture a line of his furniture, Maloof refused.  He made every piece by hand, with the help of three assistants.

A photo of a teak trunk. (Image courtesy of Tectomec)

Teak trunk. (Image courtesy of Tectomec)

TEAK’S ORIGINS

A genus of tropical hardwood tree, teak is native to south and southeast Asia, particularly in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. Like many natural materials, the current teak supply is tangled in environmental issues and political upheaval. If purchasing new teak, be sure to understand the complex issues surrounding its harvest, particularly Burma, where human rights groups have accused the military junta of forced labor, and other violations, leading Burmese dissidents to start a ‘Teak is Torture’ campaign.

As there is only a very limited supply of sustainably harvested teak, there is even more reason to seek out these vintage pieces – furniture with classic style made from an incredibly durable material. Teak will not warp in cold or heat, is resistant to rot and impervious to infestation – it can remain outdoors for up to 10 years with no damage. Teak turns an ash grey color when exposed to the elements but with a little bit of wood oil its lustrous hue returns immediately.

Finn Juhl reclining in a teak chair.

Finn Juhl (1912-1989).

 

FURTHER READING:

David Ryan. ‘Essay: Scandinavian Moderne 1900 – 1960′, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1998.

Sam Maloof.  Sam Maloof: Woodworker, Kodansha International, 1989.

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Beekeeping

You might have heard the nightmarish predictions and the difficult to deny facts – a dizzying 50 billion… yes, billion honeybees dead over the last three years… and counting. If you’re not an insect lover, this might not seem troublesome until you think a bit about the bees’ intrinsic link to human survival – without their help of pollination, one third of our food supply would essentially be destroyed.

Bee pinned down. (Image courtesy of Padil)

Blue Banded Bee on a pin. (Image courtesy of Padil)

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Leather Tanning

Eddie, Horween Leather Co., Cordovan Department. (Image by Brett Nadal)

Eddie at Horween Leather Co., Cordovan Department. (Image by Brett Nadal)

Leather can be strong or supple; it can drape languidly or provide structure. The memory of the texture stays with your hands, and the earthy fragrance reminds you of its closeness to nature. It responds to the curves of your skin, and grows in character and beauty with age. Fine leather is mesmerizing, and Nick Horween of the venerable Horween Leather Company in Chicago, helped us understand how this incredible material is made.

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Fountain Pen

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, 2 July, 1964.

Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act with Martin Luther King, Jr. watching. July 2, 1964.

Several years ago during my poor college days, I found a Mont Blanc fountain pen. It was lodged between the cushions of a sofa at a cafe, amongst the muffin crumbs and paper clips. I did what any good student would do: I marched right up to the counter, asked for a coffee,… and put the pen in my pocket.

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Solid Perfume

Pomander from the 1500s.

Gold and silver pomander from the 16th-century.

Easily applied and alcohol-free, solid perfume has been right under our noses for quite some time. An emerging trend among a throng of chi-chi designers, it is in fact one of the oldest forms of perfume known to man. This tidy, balm-like alternative to the drench-prone atomizer, is an art with a degree of practicality matched only by the extravagance of its reliquary.

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Hot Smoking

Smoking fish, 1893. (Image courtesy of Shorpy)

Smoking and barbecuing fish filets, 1893. (Image courtesy of Shorpy)

From the smoldering smell of a freshly extinguished match, whisking you back to the hushed awe of gathering round a pungent crackling campfire, to the sweet and spiced dance of a Snickerdoodle on your tongue, taking you back to your first batch of homemade cookies emerging soft and warm from the oven – the corollary between memory and our powerfully nuanced senses of taste and smell is unique.

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Olivetti Typewriter

When Camillo Olivetti, the founder of a growing Italian typewriter company, sent his son, Adriano, to the U.S. in 1924 to study American industrialism, did he realize that he would be plotting an entirely new course for the future of his little endeavor?

Olivetti Valentine, 1969.

Olivetti Valentine (1969), designed by Marcello Nizzoli and Ettore Licenza.

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Mother Of Pearl

Two British Pearly Kings wearing their traditional suits. (Image courtesy of Pearly King of Peckham)

Two British Pearly Kings in traditional suits. (Image courtesy of Pearly King of Peckham)

Unlike its flashier progeny, mother of pearl is more than an accessory to a favorite pastel sweater set. As masculine as the grips on Wyatt Earp’s spinning six-shooters, and as feminine as the posy holder dangling from Queen Victoria’s tiniest finger, mother of pearl’s subtle elegance was valued for adornments and accouterments, and lent weight, permanence and beauty to the everyday objects now molded out of disposable plastics.

The luminescent inner lining of seashells, mother of pearl looks as delicate as an ebbing spot of sunlight on the surface of the ocean. But fragile it is not. Mother of pearl is strong without being brittle and according to physics professor Pupa Gilbert, “You can go over it with a truck and not break it.” Nacre, the substance secreted by mollusks to create both pearls and mother of pearl, is mostly humble calcium carbonate — the stuff of eggshells and antacid tablets. Mother of pearl’s incredible resilience comes from thin layers of an organic lubricating substance, a molecular mortar to the bricks of calcium that redistributes force and makes nacre much, much stronger than the sum of its parts. As a natural material, mother of pearl has an eternal quality that modern science strives towards, and consumer plastics cannot even begin to replicate.

Gustave Young Engraved Navy Percussion Revolver with Mother of Pearl Handle, 1851

Gustave Young Engraved Navy Percussion Revolver with Mother of Pearl Handle, 1851

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The Power Of Gold

Let’s sidestep all the financial and psychological aspects of gold for a moment and just admire it for what it is. A freakishly beautiful material. Although this might seem obvious, it is not as universally accepted as one might think. The Gold Coast natives of Timbuktu believed that their heaping surplus of gold was actually only worth its weight in salt, and traded it accordingly.

32.15 ounces of .9999 fine gold (24k). Today's value: $35,898.

32.15 ounces of .9999 fine gold (24k) is valued today at $35,898.

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