DESIGN / Material Worlds: Natural wood means quality, and its timeless appeal has been aped in artificial substitutes from plastic veneers to fake wood radios. Technology, as much as taste, shapes our choice of materials - as the first in our series shows

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THE De Havilland Mosquito was one of the most successful of all military aircraft. This twin-engined RAF fighter-bomber first flew in 1940. Luftwaffe pilots were astonished that it could fly so high and so fast; RAF pilots were astonished that they could chuck this beautiful machine about the sky like the tiniest fighter.

The secret of the Mosquito's success? A frame made of a sandwich composition of balsa wood and sitka spruce. The Mosquito was known as the 'Wooden Wonder'; it was as strong as it was light. Such sandwich constructions of lightweight timbers enabled mid-20th century designers and engineers to produce cheap, lightweight chairs, tables, railway carriages and even warplanes.

Plywood (layers of wood glued together and often bent into curves) was a further example of an age-old material - timber - transformed into something quite new. It too was pressed into war service in the 1940s.

After the Second World War, plywood was used to form car bodies and even chassis (Frank Costin's fabulous Marcos sports car, designed in 1964, caused a sensation - it had a timber-and-glue frame; the French architect, Le Corbusier, had made a prototype of a wooden town car 30 years previously). Furniture designers, notably in Scandinavia, celebrated the functional and sculptural beauty of plywood in any number of chairs in the 1950s and 60s, while hundreds of thousands of British schoolchildren sat on Ministry of Education-

approved plywood chairs. They had to be strong: school chairs are stood on, stamped on, thrown on the floor and otherwise abused.

Plywood continues to intrigue some of the best Scandinavian designers today, such as the architects Johnny Sorensen and Rud Thygesen, whose furniture for adults and children, cafes and schools is almost a by-word for Danish restraint, elegance, common sense and a refreshingly wholemeal attitude to what constitutes good design. Meanwhile architects like Renzo Piano, better known for hi-tech buildings (the Pompidou Centre with Richard Rogers, for example), have made imaginative use of plywood in recent years; Piano's opera set for Luigi Nono's Promoteo, held in the abandoned church of San Lorenzo in Venice, mixed the technologies of boat-builders, carpenters and acousticians. Audience and cast were enclosed by a wooden structure that was as much of an attraction as the performance.

Plywood and other lightweight forms of timber brought wood into line with 20th-century science and technology; wood might seem a traditional material, but technology has changed the way we use it, and our attitudes towards its production, conservation and re-use.

Chipboard and MDF (medium density fibreboard), for example, are staples of modern furniture. Both are made from what would otherwise be waste - the shavings and wood chips that, until bonded together under pressure or with glues, are nothing more than low- quality fuel for furnaces. MDF may be synonymous in many people's minds with cheap catalogue items, yet it is environmentally sound and provides affordable, reliable furniture.

If MDF is readily associated with the banal, this is the fault of designers and manufacturers. For his London home, the American architecture critic Charles Jencks has designed a range of colourful post-modern furniture - nearly all made of MDF - that proves how versatile it can be.

New technology has also enabled manufacturers in a number of industries to use wood decoratively, yet sparingly. Over the past five years, for example, car manufacturers worldwide have reintroduced veneer for dashboards and window trims of top-line cars. In Britain, the tradition never died: manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce and Jaguar kept alive the conceit that the cabin of a car is a room, rather than a cockpit, by lining it in dead trees and spray- painted cow hide.

Technocrats turned against this idea in the days when a car's most important selling points were its 0-60 acceleration time and its top speed. Today, however, cars really have become an extension of the home, mobile rooms complete with radio, stereo, telephone and some of the most comfortable seats to be found anywhere. To use wood sparingly in an age conscious of the destruction of forests, car manufacturers have begun to cut veneers wafer-thin. The thickness of the walnut veneer of a 30-year-old Jaguar can be measured with a fine-scaled ruler; a micrometer screw gauge would be too crude an instrument to reveal the depth of the wood veneer of a 1993 BMW. This saves wood, weight and trees. Whether it is necessary or desirable is a question of taste.

What is beyond question is that wood has a timeless appeal: it is soft, warm, tactile; it suggests luxury, evokes comfort. So much so, that one of the bizarre by-products of research into new materials to replace wood this century, such as plastic, has spawned a giant industry producing fake wood. Fake plastic wood became popular from the 1950s; it offered a cheaper, consistent and wipe-clean alternative to nature's gnarled and knotty product.

IN A SENSE fake wood was a logical extension of using wood in fake ways, as for example in the beams stuck to the front of the mock-Tudor houses (and to mock-Tudor Morrises) popular in Britain throughout the 20th century. Fake timber beams gave otherwise dreary little houses a veneer of history; the pounds 395 Joke Oak semi in a straggling Birmingham suburb was connected to the England of good Queen Bess and to the great modern country houses designed by architects like Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Ever since, a sliver of ash or walnut has implied a veneer of sophistication. So much so that even electrical household appliances - the Roberts Rambler radio is a good example - were sheathed in wood, or at least what appeared to be wood. Plastic wood was used extensively from the 1950s by British designers and manufacturers; there was no wit and humour in its use - the application was deadly serious. Wood was what buyers of new-fangled radiogrammes, radios and stereo systems wanted and, if plastic wood was cheaper, then plastic wood it was. Plastic wood veneers have also been used extensively to tart up chipboard and MDF bookshelves and other pieces of furniture. Owners often find themselves reaching for the superglue as these micro-thin, fake- wood veneers peel away from the cheap planks hidden behind in centrally heated homes.

Fake wood might seem absurd to those who can afford furniture made of well-turned oak and antique walnut, but not to the great majority of people in Britain for whom wood equals tradition, comfort and quality. Even if a ban were finally placed on the destruction of old trees and ancient woodlands for the production of timber, householders would still plead for wood. They would turn increasingly either to plastic wood or to cheap pine from quick- grow forestry plantations.

In the furniture industry, rare British woods and those like mahogany from tropical rainforests are becoming increasingly hard to find and difficult to use; many craftsmen and factories prefer not to use them for moral and ecological reasons. Pine, however, can be grown quickly; the trees shoot up, can be cut down young, and although hardly providing the most beautiful or sophisticated timber, can be made into practical furniture whether stripped, varnished or painted.

The Victorians began to make extensive use of pine, particularly in the massive church building programmes undertaken by both the established and Catholic hierarchies. The sheer volume of new buildings, the speed at which they were erected and the need to keep costs low meant that Victorian church builders and architects turned to pine. The new railways meant that this cheap timber was easy to carry from plantation to building site; trains liberated British architects from the need to use local building materials. This is why Victorian churches stand out like sore thumbs, however interesting or sophisticated their design. Inside these churches, pine - pitched and polished - dominates: pews, altar rails, pulpits.

Pine became fashionable again in the 1960s, when young couples setting up Habitat-look homes began to buy simple pine furniture. They then discovered that, because most of the woodwork in their houses was pine too, a pine- look could be achieved by stripping years of paint off old doors. But while some stripped, others varnished: by the mid-1970s Britain's domestic landscape was a ghastly forest of cheap pine. In the past 10 years, the fashion has been to paint pine; while it can be used attractively, on the whole cheaper cuts are best disguised.

The idea of displaying timber in the raw in the home is, again, related to the idea of natural and traditional comfort. Britain's furniture industry, based mostly wooded landscapes, is not known for taking risks. The biggest and longest established companies like Ercol continue to make traditional designs brought only slightly up-to-date. Ercol furniture is well made and thoroughly decent; yet it conjures up the world of Brief Encounter, a land of doilies, antimacassars, deep-pile 'lavatory sets', swishing net curtains and tea 'as it comes'.

Wood furniture a step or three down from Ercol maintains a curious hold on the British. Yet rather than conferring comfort, status and a spurious sense of history on its owners, it displays a very modern view of the world: a self-righteous and perverse satisfaction with mass-produced tat as long as it nods, however curtly, to past styles.

Curiously, it was the traditionalists, the designers of Britain's Arts and Crafts Movement at the turn of the century, who began to demonstrate the possibilities of modern timber design and construction. When Arts and Crafts sensibility was fused with Art Nouveau aesthetics, the results were remarkable.

The chairs of the celebrated Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and more so those of the saintly Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi remain among the most exuberant examples of the art of making furniture in wood. Mackintosh's high-back ladder chairs are like Aubrey Beardsley illustrations brought to life. Elongated and wand-thin, they are not very comfortable to sit on, but are perfect companions to the beautiful white rooms Mackintosh created in the houses he designed.

Gaudi's chairs are something else altogether; they seem almost alive: domestic animals that turn and twist timber into supernatural shapes. Gaudi was a modern medievalist, but being a traditionalist does not mean having to ape past styles. Earlier, it was Augustus Northmore Welby Pugin, father of the Gothic revival in Britain, who turned back to the Middle Ages with his knock-down transportable oak and pine furniture.

For ease of transport and assembly, much medieval furniture was made in kit-form, rather like furniture sold in Ikea and MFI today. Wooden pegs, driven in by mallets, held the various elements together. Pugin revived this technique, which made it a simple task for his furniture makers to transport mass-produced Gothic pews and cabinets across the country. Today, when people move home frequently, Pugin's approach makes sense again; it was practical and down-to-earth.

Not so that of the early Modern Movement architects and designers, who carried out many of their structural, spatial and decorative experiments with furniture. Wood was the cheapest material available to them; it was also easy to work. Gerrit Rietveld, the Dutch architect, created his famous red, yellow and blue chair in 1917, an experiment in colour and form (still popular and readily available, as is furniture by Mackintosh and, to a lesser extent, Gaudi). From the 1920s, Modern Movement designers began to explore the structural and aesthetic possibilities of steel and aluminium, although experiments in timber continued, particularly with plywood and bentwood. After the Second World War exciting new materials and production technologies became available and designers in this country were bored with the banality of furniture design of the 1920s and 30s. Germans like Hans Coray were experimenting with lightweight aluminium, Finns like Alvar Aalto were sculpting in plywood and Americans like Charles and Ray Eames were exploring the possibilities of industrial production and refining industrial materials for use in the home and office.

The Cotswold tradition - gnarled craftsmen sawing with one hand, tugging forelocks with the other - was worthy but infinitely dull. How well such furniture suited school libraries, and refectories in isolated monasteries; how inappropriate for modern buildings.

Contemporary designers approach wood in very different ways, although perhaps four main strands can be identified. There are those, like Richard La Trobe-Bateman, who design in raw, rough-hewn timber, as if chairs and tables had been knocked together from wood found on forest floors. There are others, like Jasper Morrison, who design pure forms in smooth timber (nature tamed, reinterpreted and polished). A third tendency - the most recent - mixes timber with other materials, principally steel and aluminium (you will be able to see many such examples together with a representative cross-section of design graduates' work at 'The New Designers' Show' at the Business Design Centre, London N1, from 15-18 July). The fourth, exemplified by designers like Ron Carter, continues to refine an Arts and Crafts tradition, producing quiet and unpretentious English furniture.

The most outstanding and in many ways controversial group of contemporary designers in wood are those who trained with John Makepeace at his Hooke Park College at Parnham House, Dorset. On the one hand Makepeace has nurtured a school of designers and craftsmen with a commitment to ecology and with an understanding of the elastic qualities of timber, both structurally and aesthetically. However, many of the actual designs are wildly exaggerated: much of the furniture produced at Parnham is a bravura circus performance. This is curious because the architecture of Hooke Park College itself, its policy on planting trees and its intelligent approach to ecology are all outstanding. At Hooke Park, John Makepeace says: 'The interests of industry, the community and the environment can be reconciled within a benign circle'.

The training centre at Hooke Park is one of the most interesting new buildings in Britain. Designed by Frei Otto with the architects Ahrends Burton & Koralek and the structural engineers Buro Happold, the building is formed from freshly felled and thus immensely flexible timber, formed into a series of 108 arches, 15m long and 6cm in diameter. The timber is as it comes, neither planed nor polished. The arches create a huge open-plan workshop; they are covered in two polymer skins with a layer of mineral fibre insulation in between. The stone-chip covering on the outer skin was designed so that, in time, it would be overgrown by mosses and lichens; gradually the dinosaur-skeleton structure will merge into its woodland landscape.

The Hooke College training centre building shows wood being reconsidered as an innovative and ecologically correct material. Architects and engineers are once again utilising the fact that the branches of trees are immensely strong; they are only weakened when refined into geometrically sawn timber beams.

In Hungary, the architect Imre Makovecz has been taking this approach to timber construction to its logical extreme over the past 20 years. Many of the low-cost village halls Makovecz and his team of architects and carpenters have been erecting in rural Hungary are held up by whole trees. For Makovecz trees have many symbolic qualities, but the most important fact is that they are a cheap, simple and effective way of holding up large-span roofs.

The experiments at Hooke Park and the work of Imre Makovecz look back and forward. Both use wood in its natural state to create new types of low-cost buildings; both approaches are far removed from plywood, the balsa-wood Mosquito, MDF and the micro-thin veneers used in today's automotive

industry. Yet they are radical, too - and proof that wood still has its part to play in the essential underpinning, as well as the embellishment, of our everyday lives.

(Photographs omitted)