Woody by name, but not nature

Britain's top designers have been sprucing up the furniture at London's CAA: their mission, to love the trees
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To some, design might seem an extraneous and frivolous field. But there are others who recognise its polemical potential. Cutting-edge furniture designer Michael Marriott, for one, believes design can be socially and ecologically responsible. He began his career producing eco- furniture from recycled materials (a chest of drawers made of sardine cans, for example) and more recently, pieces in untreated MDF.

To some, design might seem an extraneous and frivolous field. But there are others who recognise its polemical potential. Cutting-edge furniture designer Michael Marriott, for one, believes design can be socially and ecologically responsible. He began his career producing eco- furniture from recycled materials (a chest of drawers made of sardine cans, for example) and more recently, pieces in untreated MDF.

Marriott's latest mission, this time as curator not designer, is to upgrade the quality of furniture shown at the London gallery, Contemporary Applied Arts (CAA), via an exhibition of pieces by some of Britain's most directional designers, intriguingly named "Woody".

Marriott is not one to mince his words: "I was voted on to the CAA's Council and thought its furniture department was unnecessarily bad," he explains. "So I proposed Woody." Determined to inject fresh blood into the CAA, he approached designers who weren't members of the CAA, hadn't shown there before, and "were generating at least some of the pieces themselves".

Yet, crusading Marriott is as whimsical as he is worthy. Perversely, much of the furniture in "Woody" isn't made of wood. "I chose the title for several reasons. It's a derogatory term for craftsy types. It's a US porn term for an erect penis. There's Woody from Toy Story and Woody Woodpecker."

While much of the furniture combines wood with other materials, other pieces are made of different materials altogether. Established designers Shin and Tomoko Azumi, who produce minimalist furniture as well as Heath Robinson-esque multifunctional pieces, are exhibiting their pared-down salt and pepper shaker "Snowman" and wire-frame chair (both Azumi classics), as well as "Dimming with Movement" (a lamp that dims as you rotate its conical base), "Table=Chest" (a coffee table folding up to form a chest), and "s.t. 300 Clock with Coat Hanger" (combining clock, coat-hanger and shelf).

Carl Clerkin who was nominated for this year's prestigious Oxo/Peugeot Design Awards, makes witty hybrids of household objects and furniture with no-nonsense, self-explanatory names such as "Builders' Trowel Coat Hook" and "Corkscrew Lamp".

Wood was the last thing on the minds of groovy design-collective El Ultimo Grito. Its three interrelated rugs, "Chaos vs Order", are a case of nutty whimsy eclipsing all sense of practicality. Gripped by the doodle bug, it has produced a rug in the shape of a huge, black, psychotic scribble, representing chaos. Another thin 4m-long strip of yellow carpet leads to a third rug, a pink cross symbolising order. But then "Woody" is packed with examples of designers letting rip. Take Alexander Hellum's chairs "Library Chair Step 1" and "Occasional Chair with Hollow Back". The former's step-like backrest bends, halfway up, to become a shelf behind the chair. "It's inspired by library steps, and Europeans having their lunch sitting on the steps round squares," explains Hellum opaquely. His "Occasional Chair" has a skeletal backrest - it's virtually hollow save for a bar very high up. "Ergonomic," says Hellum. "The area of your back behind your shoulders needs the most support."

Despite the droll way Marriott claims the show has virtually no associations with wood, many of the exhibiting designers wax lyrical about the stuff. Simon Maidment, whose "Charlie" shelving system is made of beech plywood, believes "wood has physical and visual warmth, an aroma, an individual grain, it wears well and is an ideal material for furniture".

Truth be told, the "Woody" posse even admires the work of woodloving designers. Marriott, for one, gives the thumbs-up to Denmark's Hans Wegner, whose stark, Fifties modernist furniture was made of wood, rush and caning. In proselytising mode, Marriott continues: "Wood is the only material that has a positive impact on the planet in that it supplies us with oxygen. It has a big part to play in the future. But it doesn't provide the solution alone."

'Woody' is at the CAA, 2 Percy Street, London W1 (020-7436 2344) until 31 October

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