Woodwashing at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair


Amid the usual “clean” (despite all the scuff marks) white modernism at International Contemporary Furniture Fair this year was a new trend I’ll call woodwashing. It’s basically 1970s rustic den meets 2000s eco-luxe. We’re taking shelter from a torn-up world in a time when — we imagine — things weren’t so bad. Hence all the Victorian era–themed restaurants out there and the ubiquitous hunting lodge deer antlers of a few years ago. This year, we reached the apex, surrounding ourselves with so much lumber (“warm” is 2009’s design buzzword, replacing “sleek”) that ICFF looked like a Home Depot back lot.

It’s pretty, but the aesthetic banks on wood’s inherent charm and dispenses with all the quirky details that make it interesting. Knot-free planks with perfect grain are stunning once. After a roomfull, they’re as bland as stainless steel. I spent last weekend chopping logs in Vermont. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but taking an axe to a chunk of tree is a better way than any to get intimate with the material. You learn what cuts well and what doesn’t, where to cut and where not to, what burns well and what doesn’t. Every log splits differently, even from the same tree.

Shimna, my favorite exhibitor this year, knows that. The wood they get is from a family-run mill in Pennsylvania. They get the off-cuts, the weird, knotty, sap-colored pieces most furniture makers would mulch, and turn them into totally unique tables, beds, and dressers. A coffee table I saw had a walnut trapped in a swirl of grain — it must have gotten stuck in a joint one fall, and the tree just grew around it. It’s a welcome change from the uniform chocolate browns of a place like Bernhardt Design, and Shimna isn’t alone. Local favorites Scrapile mix and match scrap lumber into zebra-striped patterns.

Uhuru had a table made out of police barricades — upcycling and sticking it to the man at the same time? Jack Larimore uses reclaimed lumber from junked Philadelphia buildings. It’s trash into treasure, and a sign that great design can come from the humblest of places.