THE REAL COST OF WOOD FURNITURE
Wood is material I love to use for it’s tactility, rich colors, and versatility. There are few architectural traditions that don’t use wood for the built environment, and when you look around, it doesn’t take long to realize that wood is everywhere, from the structure and surfaces of our spaces to much of the furniture we use daily.
It’s a poetic living material that continues to evolve with time. I have wood pieces in my home that go back generations. Some are from places I have never been, from trees I have never heard of or seen, built with techniques that are rarely used today. Perhaps my favorite of them all is a simple cedar chest that I’ve lived with in no less than 9 different homes. It smells wonderful, and holds a patina giving it character and personality that people always compliment.
According to the Sustainable Furnishings Council, furniture is the # 3 wood consumer after buildings and paper manufacturing. Though it is considered a renewable resource as long as new trees grow as quickly as they are cut down, more often than not this is not the case. The Forest Stewardship Council was created to certify products coming from responsibly managed forests. Checking that the products you buy received FSC certification is a good place to start in making responsible decisions.
But is it enough?
In my college years, I took a summer job with a reforestation company where I had the unique experience of planting approximately 40,000 trees. It was there I learned the real cost of wood resources. I was hungry for nature, and eager to stack a few dollars in my pocket. My mother drove me to buy a tent that I would live in for the next two months. I packed a bag with some old men’s dress shirts, duct tape, and a shovel, and hopped on a greyhound bus to Kapuskasing, Ontario - which at the time felt geographically like the end of the world.
It was a physical job, and I wasn’t very good. The experienced planters could plant 3000+ trees a day. I was lucky when I finished 1000 in about 13 hours. I discovered quickly that hard labor was not my calling. It wasn’t great money at 7 cents a tree, but at 19 I thought I was rolling in it. In spite of this newfound wealth, when I arrived back to society - I became rather miserly. I started to count the cost of everything in trees. “That sandwich? 150 trees!”
The truth was, it wasn’t just the price - I had seen the real COST of that income. I saw the little saplings being shipped to remote parts of the country. I saw the care, and hard labor that went into planting each tree, one after another, for hours on end. I saw the pesticides that needed to be sprayed to give the saplings a chance at growth if there were not to be overtaken by thickets of other fast-growing plants. It was an imperfect system to be sure.
Here’s the thing, reforestation is so much better than nothing at all, but we have to remember that it’s the lesser of two not great options. Looking back more than a decade later, nothing personally did significantly helped the planet, the experience confirmed to me that nature is the best tree planter, and wood is a precious resource to be consumed mindfully and slowly. Experiences like this have informed the Laura Kern Design company ethos of quality consumption.
To this end, I recently joined the sustainable furniture council. I’ve been really impressed by the efforts of the member companies to do their part in making sure we don’t deplete our planet of the lungs that make the air we breathe. In particular I’ve been impressed by their #Whatsitmadeof initiative and their upcoming wood scorecard initiative. I believe the way they frame the problem is right - in asking the question how is this company not contributing to deforestation.
As a best practice I advocate for using antiques as first choice whenever possible. This can be the absolute best way to be sure you are not consuming new wood products that are degrading forests. Craftsmanship in antique furniture can often exceed that of new products, as items produced a few generations ago were built for a lifetime, not a few years use. Additionally this can be the greatest resource for reviving design style details that are cycling back into fashion, or perhaps never left...
The next best thing, is to find companies with great wood policies. Kalon Studios is one of my favorites, they work with sustainably sourced domestic hardwoods local to their factory and avoid using any VOC's in their finishes or substrates. The Joinery offers handcrafted furniture to be enjoyed for generations and even offer rejuvenation services for their pieces. Sun at Six offers some lovely pieces made with traditional chinese joinery techniques from raw, sustainably sourced white oak, house-made tung oil. Ethnicraft is another great company whose wood products contain FSC chain of custody or 100% recycled labels.
There are some other ways to be confident about the products you're purchasing. There are certain types of wood of course that are better than others. For example spalted maple - a finish used often by the dreamy BDDW is maple wood that has been allowed to begin initial stages of decay, and then subsequently dried. If naturally harvested and at the right time it will serve as a strong hardwood but with beautiful dark contrasting lines and tones of grey. Using a wood like this to create a figured elegant finish is much more sustainable than the traditional burled hardwoods that often come from precious endangered forests like the Amazon.
No matter what, working together you can rest assured that I will be vigilant about the products I propose and what we ultimately choose. In joining the SFC I have made a commitment to ask for verifiable chain of custody documents (legal logging certifications) before buying products containing wood. When this question can't be answered - I will recommend alternative products, whether lasting and durable antique options, or products containing materials we know we can depend on.
Image credits - top: Kil & Oki Oak Table detail, Kalon Studios Oak Stumps, Zeitraum Friday Chair, BDDW Lake Credenza detail
Image credits - bottom: Hans Wegner Chair Detail, Zalszupin Bar Cart, Charlotte Perriand Daybed, Carlo Scarpa Chair