Forest Tales, a spectacular showcase of both global design talent and the beauty
and versatility of American hardwood as a design material, has attracted significant attention at the
Triennale Milano. Curated and designed by Studio Swine, Forest Tales brought together 22 specially
selected designs from the American Hardwood Export Council’s (AHEC) recent design collaboration
projects. On display at Triennale Milano from June 3 – 12, 2022, Forest Tales is the culmination of
AHEC’s creative work over the past two years. Studio Swine have curated pieces from four projects,
which despite the diversity of their output, are united through material – each piece is made from
one (or more) of three underused American hardwood varieties: maple, cherry and red oak.
“Forest Tales brings together a celebration of exceptional design from AHEC’s latest projects, a love
for timber and a much needed call for balance. Balance in the way we use natural materials with
particular emphasis on renewable ones, such as wood. The same balance on which today’s
designers, as well as the entire sector, are called upon to reflect in order to address the greatest
social and economic issue of our time: climate change; and the need to put an end to the current
throwaway culture. Covid has shown that the world can react very quickly to a major global crisis,
hopefully this experience will enable us to quickly make the necessary changes in the way we
consume, build and live,” said David Venables, Director, AHEC Europe.
Studio Swine curated pieces from Connected, which challenged nine world-renowned international
designers to create tables and seating responding to the isolation imposed by the pandemic;
Discovered: Designers for Tomorrow, which gave a platform to twenty emerging design talents
from around the world; Slow Design for Fast Change, which brought together nine young designers
from the DACH countries to create furniture and objects characterized by sustainability, longevity
and craftsmanship; and A Seat at the Table, AHEC’s latest collaboration with Italian furniture maker
Riva 1920 that sees four emerging Italian designers selected to create innovative, sustainable
designs for solid-wood tables.
For Forest Tales, Studio Swine took a selection of pieces from each project, and incorporated them
into a labyrinthine ‘mountain’ of wooden crates – a monumental and immersive exhibition design
that invites visitors to enter, explore and discover a fresh perspective on furniture. Featuring 22
designers from 14 countries, the exhibition line-up is a veritable who’s who of contemporary design.
Featured designs include work by both established and emerging designers, ranging from
Heatherwick Studio’s biophilic Stem table in maple and Studio Swine’s own steam-bent red oak
tribute to Ming Dynasty design, to Taiho Shin’s inventive, expanding, glue-less shelving systems,
Maria Bruun’s quintessentially Nordic stackable stools, and Simon Gehring’s three-wood chair that
fuses computational design processes and leftover timber scraps to unique effect.
“We were delighted to be invited by AHEC to propose a display. It’s a great honor for us to be invited
to design an exhibition space and only the second time we have done so. The opportunity to be
honest was quite daunting, to create something in a venue with the history of Triennale, during
Salone, we felt the looming shadow of the great stand designs by Castiglioni, Ray and Charles
Eames, OMA etc. and so it was crucial to do something bold and impactful which can do justice to
the extraordinary works by all they established and emerging designers, whilst at the same time
creating no waste,” said Studio Swine.
Studio Swine’s concept for the installation was inspired by the opening frames of Citizen Kane, in
which Kane’s belongings are shown amid a vast jumble of wooden crates, to be assessed and
packed away. Visitors stepping into the gallery are confronted with an interesting topography of
wooden packing crates – the same ones used to transport the furniture – with the various pieces
displayed at different levels atop, under, and beside them. Screens, showing video content about the
pieces, the initiatives behind them and the woods from which they were made, are woven into the
‘cratescape’. The surfaces of the crates themselves serve as blank canvases for images depicting
the forest landscape from which the hardwoods originate.
Following the idea of anamorphic perspective, whereby an image only becomes clear when seen
from a specific viewpoint (famously exemplified by the skull in Hans Holbein’s painting The
Ambassadors), each crate has been painted to depict a single element of a larger scene, so that,
when viewed for a certain angle, the images on the crates come together to form a complete
picture. The viewer’s perspective of the exhibition therefore shifts depending on where they are
standing – from one angle, they will see the complete image of a forest; at another, the image
fragments and the furniture becomes the focus. Different stories are told as they interact with the
The notion of shifting perspectives is integral to both the form and content of the installation. Forest
Tales is not only a showcase of creativity, but an argument against waste in design, a plea for a
more thoughtful choice of materials, and a challenge to the status quo. Conscious that many Milan
exhibitions generate substantial amounts of waste, AHEC and Studio Swine were determined that
Forest Tales should be as material-efficient and close to carbon-zero as possible, while also
ensuring that its sustainability message reaches as many of the key industry decision makers in
Milan as possible. That meant it had to be epic in scale.
The use of crates allowed Studio Swine and AHEC to achieve maximum attention with minimal
impact. The crates are multi-purpose, used to display, ship, and store the exhibits, so there is no set
to dispose of when the festival is over – it simply returns to its original purpose. With this in mind, all
printing methods and inks used to create the artworks on the crates, by London-based graphic
studio SPIN, have been chosen to ensure that they do not impact the crates’ primary function of
storage and transport.
With Forest Tales, AHEC aimed to provide a global platform to designers, pieces and projects that
have not yet been widely seen due to the pandemic, but also to demonstrate the extraordinary
potential of a selection of underused American hardwoods as sustainable design materials. This is
especially important at a time when stocks of more widely used European hardwoods have been
depleted by overuse, and supply lines heavily disrupted by the current geopolitical situation. The
pandemic has made the need to address the environmental challenge even more relevant, and
while architects and designers are now more inclined to explore a wider variety of timbers for their
designs, consumers are increasingly attentive to the impact of what they consume and surround
Maple, cherry and red oak are all versatile woods that grow at a faster rate than they are
harvested. Strong, practical, tactile, beautiful and rapidly renewable, they are nevertheless
significantly underutilized by the furniture industry – in some cases because they have fallen out of
favor as trends change, in others because they are simply not well understood. With this exhibition,
AHEC wanted to turn the industry’s heads towards a selection of three American hardwoods as the
perfect combination of aesthetics, durability and practicality – ideal materials for our current and
coming generations of designers and innovators to create beautiful, long-lasting furniture that is
either carbon-neutral or carbon-negative.
“Forest Tales reflects on how the use of a wider range of sustainable materials, such as the three
U.S. hardwoods featured in the exhibition, and all wood species in general, proportionate to what
grows in the forest, makes the use of the resource and the way we consume more thoughtful and
responsible. And for the first time, the entire industry ecosystem, including designers, specifiers and
consumers, seems aligned in wanting to do the right thing in the face of the environmental
imperative,” concluded Venables.