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What makes furniture a hand-me-down or a heirloom?

An heirloom, as everyone knows, is a treasure that’s handed down from generation to generation. But what elevates it, and makes it worth passing on? is it form, function, family lore? And do its creators ever imagine their work still delighting the great-great-grandchild of the original owner a century later? What kind of pieces endure over time, and why?

That’s what the 2019 London Design Festival asked leaders of the city’s cultural institutions to examine as they collaborated with designers to create interior and exterior pieces to bequeath either to family or their cultural institution.  The ten items were all crafted out of American red oak, an abundant species of hardwood that regenerates naturally in vast amounts, according to trade association American Hardwood Export Council, which supported the designs. Here are a few of the pairings:

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director, Science Museum and Marlène Huissoud: The surface of the oddly-shaped Beehave (below) was scorched to its coal-like colour before Huissoud and her team spent hours engraving it with a burning tool. 

“I think he knew my father was a beekeeper,” says Huissoud. “More than just a beehive he wanted (to) open a dialogue around biodiversity and sustainability. This piece is about helping bees to live.”

Work it

Amanda Nevill, CEO, British Film Institute and Sebastian Cox:  Amanda Nevil asked for a pen holder, a desk, and a chair (below) to reflect the importance of writing and storytelling in both her personal and professional life. The angled curve of Cox’s Writer’s Collection compliments the perspective of its home overlooking the box office of British Film Institute’s mezzanine.

“The idea is that over time this desk and chair will absorb the creative energy of the people who have used it and become a place where emerging British creatives can come and absorb some of that energy,” explains Cox.

Alex Beard, CEO, Royal Opera House and Terence Woodgate:  A set of sofas for meetings at the Royal Opera House (below) were executed in red oak and painstakingly given a curved chamfer detail. With bones of hidden metal rods, Duo sofas have as much strength as they have style.

Garden seats

Kwame Kwei-Armah, OBE, Artistic Director, Young Vic and Tomoko Azumi of TNA Design Studio:  Kwei-Armah envisioned a garden piece (below) to pass on to his grandson. Inspired by wood that made him think of outdoor furniture in the Caribbean, slave ships that brought his ancestors from Africa to the Caribbean, and the colonial ship that brought his parents to the UK, Au was formed by steam-bending thin slats of wood into a boat-like structure.

“This piece encapsulates somewhere for me to sit, somewhere for me to remember, something that carries the huge framework of the last 500 years of my family,” says Kwei-Armah.

Sir John Sorrell, Chairman, London Design Festival and Juliet Quintero of Dallas-Pierce-Quintero:  The Nest, (below) which will sit by a garden pond at Sorrell’s home —serving as a seat from which to watch the sunset — was made with red oak that was thermally modified to make it suitable for outdoor use.  

“We wanted to offer the experience of something like a cocoon but at the same time allow dappled light to come through, so that you get a sense that you are within the trees. It’s a space of contemplation and reflection,” says Quintero.

The featured image is Fugu by Jasper Morrison for Tristram Hunt

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