Paola Antonelli on Design and the Politics of Wood
"Trees are awe-inspiring organisms. The way their structures are formed, the way they live in communities, the ways they survive and communicate... "
Agenda-setting MoMA Curator Paola Antonelli considers the journey of wood throughout history, questioning humans’ treatment of trees, creatures that are “alive and contain universes” and in turn, the responsibility of designers.
This piece is an excerpt from a text originally published in the sold-out Cambio catalogue, now back in stock. Order your copy here.
By Paola Antonelli
Design is enmeshed in all facts of life. Those who practice or ponder it know that, like money, it can be investigated to make sense of involved situations and even to get to the truth, sometimes. Objects, edifices, and cities, all the elements of our built environment are entanglements of materials, technologies, labour, interests, history, and ideals, each a complex system existing within complex systems. They can be revealing to those who can decipher them. The red thread of design is as flexible and elastic as the definition of design itself, and its generous affordance encompasses the study of materials and technologies, functions, forms, behaviours, styles, languages, safety, power, identities, and much more. Because it exists in the real world, moreover, design has political bearing and is a tool to better understand society, culture, and history. In some cases, design is an overt political act.
Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, a.k.a. Formafantasma, embraced this approach early on in their career, almost instinctively. The materiality of objects – the material culture and the materials and labour of which objects are made – have led them on momentous explorations, Cambio being the most recent. This investigative design project does not centre around the history or science of wood, but rather incorporates this knowledge in order to zero in on the invisible threads and hidden underbelly of the wood trade within the global industrial complex of construction and manufacturing, and the effects it has on society and the environment, observed and exposed through the lens of design.
Wood and woods matter greatly. Let’s consider the present. At the time of writing, fires in the Amazon have abated, but Australia is burning. Its smouldering forests, rather than uniting all citizens in response to an obvious climate emergency, have become the uncanny battleground for redrawn partisan trenches, with climate change deniers blaming ‘greenies’ for having opposed the cutting down of trees – a wilful deforestation that, the deniers argue, could have limited the blazes. Fires are raging through forests in both hemispheres, stressing their consequence by choking and charring cities. Even though the fires in the Amazon are reduced from their peak in August 2019, the world is still incensed at Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental laissez-faire attitude. In California, the electrical company PG&E has planned rolling blackouts to try and control the wildfires, leaving millions of people without electricity, in some cases for days. Indonesia, Siberia, and Lebanon also suffered extensive and momentous wildfires in 2019. In Germany, even without fire, citizens are lamenting the weakened state of their woodlands – considered national treasures whose prosperity is crucial to the German state of mind – and they are springing into action, volunteering to try and save them. Science and politics have rarely been in such tension. Governments are measured against their environmental record, and the wellbeing of forests (especially the lack thereof) is one among the most telling indexes. If all previous considerations were not enough to establish the existence of a Politics of Wood, labour and resource exploitation by private companies, individuals, and public institutions has increased, and without an increase in legislative output, organised crime has created its own illegal and deeply damaging network.
If in the past 150 years the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene has elevated forests to victims and symbols, their current predicament has, however, been millennia in the making. Wood has existed since before the very beginning of human life and since the beginning of design, ready to be experimented with, deployed, and exploited in myriad different ways ranging from the production of energy to the making and building of objects of all kinds and sizes, from the toothpick to the city. It did not take long for humans to accumulate enough experience to make ever more sophisticated tools and structures, and to attempt to systematise wood’s use. The earliest European building made of wood is the Danubian Neolithic long house (6000 BC). Different local environmental, social, and cultural conditions – and the different types of wood available – led to different local traditions, typologies, and craftsmanship, as the refinement in knowledge and applications grew worldwide. Its pairing with copper (which was introduced around 5000 BC) and other metals led to further definition of wood’s features, dividing functions between various materials and optimising their use. All the most important objects at all scales (from buckets to ships and to the first printing press in the fifteenth century, not to mention weapons, homes, and bridges) continued for centuries to be made of wood, with metal details and components.
In time, aesthetic and financial considerations tied to scarcity of certain trees complicated the business of wood, for good and for bad. The furniture industry in particular, relying not only on artistry but also on the rarity of prime materials to establish value and jack up prices, bears responsibility for the creation of several vicious circles of exploitation of natural and human resources. Imperialism and colonial subjugation contributed to the deepening of the wounds generated by those systems, as the wood trade constituted one more faucet for enrichment besides mining, agriculture, and spices and drugs trade, to name just a few. Among the technologies specific to architecture and design, veneers date back to as early as 300 BC, as does plywood – two ingenious applications that could be considered at the opposite ends of the spectrum of wood in terms of their perceived preciousness and functionality.
Throughout history, engineers and scientists have wished to enhance wood’s natural penchant for flexibility and lightness, while also pushing it beyond its natural limitations. Softwood, plywood and composites, whose technology exploded in the twentieth century, also thanks to the introduction of new, oil-based resins and adhesives, were great alternatives to lumber (at least for some applications) and gave birth to memorable design experiments, such as the Eameses’ famous leg splint (1942) and other wartime inventions. Technological progress has also meant transforming wood into various compounds capable of producing new homogeneous materials with different behaviours, such as particleboard and MDF, all the way diminishing waste and improving binding agents to make them less toxic: pairing it, cut in panels, with other materials such as foam and aluminium honeycomb for lighter insulation panels; using thin veneers with other fibres to exploit its natural flexibility, and combining with other materials’ behaviours, to name just three areas of development.
From a tree to eternity, the range of permutations and applications is striking. In 1995, I worked on my first exhibition at MoMA, titled Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design. It was divided into seven sections, and among them – besides glass, plastics, foams, composites, metals, and ceramics – wood’s was the most surprising. ‘Among materials, wood is the most discreet,’ I wrote in the catalogue. ‘Even when [technological] advances have been achieved, they have been hidden by wood’s serene permanence.  This idyllic statement should have been tempered by some consideration of wood’s complex geopolitical history, by the awareness of how trees and wood, already tainted by centuries of conflict and exploitation, would further become a crucible for survival, but the excitement of technological innovation was blinding. Twenty-five years later, we are more self-aware, and wood has awakened to find its full-throated fury, a threatening reminder of our fallibility and hubris.
“Trees are alive and contain universes. They should have rights, Christopher Stone argued in 1972 in his renowned article Should Trees Have Standing? At the very least, they should be treated with respect. What does that respect mean today? How have designers fared? What should they do to be more responsible?”
Fires (natural and human-made), avalanches, deforestation, freak storms like the one that hit the Val di Fiemme in 2018, which inspired this project, have highlighted the crucial role of wood for human survival – as well as its vulnerability to the short-sightedness or outright malign intentions of tyrants and criminals (and criminal tyrants) worldwide. This newly-gained sensitivity to the plight of trees has inspired investigations and compelling fields of study, like dendroecology and dendroclimatology, both based on reading tree rings to study past ecological events and climate history respectively. It has also inspired a curiosity and reverence for trees that transcends fantasy or animism and is instead rooted in science. Trees are awe-inspiring organisms. The way their structures are formed, the way they live in communities, the ways they survive and communicate with each other (via volatile organic compounds, or VOCs;  via their roots thanks to fungal networks, in what scientists ranging from fungus expert Paul Stamets to plant neurobiologists Monica Gagliano and Stefano Mancuso, and forester Peter Wohlleben have compared, in so many words, to the Internet) are the stuff of wonder. Trees are alive and contain universes. They should have rights, Christopher Stone argued in 1972 in his renowned article Should Trees Have Standing? At the very least, they should be treated with respect. What does that respect mean today? How have designers fared? What should they do to be more responsible?
If composites, resins, ceramics and other advanced materials are cited when discussing a stereotypical form of innovation, wood is where some of the most constructive architecture, design, and even urban planning arguments about the future are happening. Whether it focuses on social justice and fair trade, sustainability in the form of embodied energy or carbon sequestering, a deeper understanding of geopolitical systems, or about material culture, awareness of natural patrimony, connectedness to nature and to Earth, interspecies co-creation and co-existence, wood is where it’s at. Farresin and Trimarchi, whose work as educators at the Design Academy Eindhoven includes the recent foundation of a master’s course on Geo-Design, have dived into wood’s entangled universe to indicate a possible path that will lead not only to new models of design and architecture practice and theory, but also to new legislation and multidisciplinary research. Such is the role of design today – not only about form, not only about function, but also about deep and wide-ranging influence on the future of society.
 Formafantasma has tackled, among others, the ecosystems of pre-oil era resins (Botanica, 2011), lava (De Natura Fossilium, 2014), and electronic waste (Ore Streams, 2018-19).
 Ketan Joshi, ‘Something else is out of control in Australia: climate disaster denialism’, The Guardian, 1 January 2020
For more information about active forest fires, see https://fires.globalforestwatch.org/home/
For a close and contemporary look at the global impact of wildfires, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4874420/
 Roland Hughes, ‘Amazon fires: What’s the latest in Brazil?’, BBC News, 12 October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49971563
 Faiz Siddiqui, ‘California’s new normal: Wildfires, ash and power outages could last a decade’, The Washington Post, 27 October 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/10/26/this-is-new-norm-fire-ravaged-wine-country-rolling-blackouts-become-way-life/
 Melissa Eddy, ‘Climate Change Strikes at the Heart of German Identity: The Woods’, The New York Times, 24 December 2019
 For a synthetic and effective history of wood in design, see… https://www.eolss.net/sample-chapters/C10/E5-03-03-01.pdf
 Anick Coudart, ‘The Reconstruction of the Danubian Neolithic House and the Scientific Importance of Architectural Studies’, Experimental Archeology, no. 3, 2013, https://exarc.net/issue-2013-3/ea/reconstruction-danubian-neolithic-house-and-scientific-importance-architectural-studies
 Dan Cossins, ‘Plant talk’, The Scientist,1 January 2014, https://www.the-scientist.com/features/plant-talk-38209
 Paul Stamets, 2008 TED talk; Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, Island Press, Washington, 2015; Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, William Collins, London, 2017; Monica Gagliano et al., ‘Out of sight but not out of mind: alternative means of communication in plants,’ PLOS ONE, 22 May 2012,https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0037382.
 Christopher Stone, ‘Should Trees Have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects’, Southern California Law Review, vol. 45, 1972, pp. 450-501.
 From the Design Academy Eindhoven website: ‘GEO—DESIGN is a platform to explore the social, economic, territorial, and geopolitical forces shaping design today.’ https://www.designacademy.nl/study/master/general/geo-design