Material Intelligence

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Recently, I read an article in Aeon (by Glenn Adamson, author of Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects), which mentioned how most of the objects we use in our lives remain mysterious to us because of, among other reasons, increased complexity of modern production. The article calls upon us, the consumers, to develop material intelligence, which means developing a keen sense for material and process that make an object.

Since I founded Project Gamchha, I have been interested in material things from this perspective of ‘connoisseurship,’ which, the article referenced above says, comes from the French for knowledge, or awareness. My interest, like my project, is still fledgling; but I often come across interesting manufacturers and their founders who spur me on this quest. I learn about these companies through reading books, browsing the Internet and traveling. I hope someday I will be able to collate these in a book or, even better, own things only from these makers!

Solid bench is such a maker that embodies material intelligence.

SolidBench

Solid Bench

Solid Bench is a woodwork company in Gurgaon, India. It was founded, in 2015, with an objective to help revive the fine woodworking tradition in India.

The company combines spirit of Indian carpentry, use of sustainably harvested wood, and inspiration from Japanese tradition and American crafts movement. They specialise in making natural edge furniture. Natural edge or live edge, as they call it, is a skilful and imaginative use of wood: its “imperfections” – holes and cracks – incorporated in designs; and its grains nuanced by applying natural oils such as Tung and Linseed.

Live Edge is a skilful and imaginative use of wood

Tree is a living thing; and wood a material for art

To understand what Solid Bench does one has to see trees for what they are: living things. Like all living things, trees need air, nutrients, water, and sunlight. They withstand vagaries of weather and overcome various challenges, on account of topography and geography, to grow and flourish. Trees, which have existed on earth for 370 million years, are a group of diverse species that won the competition against other plant species in reaching for the sun. They are long-lived, some fabled even to have seen a few millennia.

The heart of a tree is its trunk (I am only simplifying things here and not playing down the importance of branches and foliage). The tree is protected from weather, insects and fungi by trunk’s outer bark. The existential journey of a tree is recorded in its trunk: in layers inside the bark. These layers are marked by concentric circles or annual growth rings, which are often visible and nuanced.

The outer parts of these circles, comprising phloem, cambium and sapwood, is the living part, hence the name live edge, of a trunk. These outer parts feed other parts of the tree with the nutritional sap (produced in leaves).

The layer beyond sapwood, heartwood, comprises the dead cells, which have seen action with the passage of time. Though dead, this part provides the tree with structural strength and needs to be shielded from air which can quickly rot it.

The climate and changing growth conditions shape a tree — and give wood its unique characteristic and make it anisotropic. That means use of wood’s strength and characteristics depends on the imagination and skills of a craftsman.

Now with so much behind it. would it not be a travesty if the wood is refashioned and reworked to make furniture only in an assembly line? I know there are merits in mass production: lower costs from economies of scale resulting in access to products for more people; but then it perhaps also gives rise to mindless consumerism. Anyway, Solid Bench sees trees as living things and wood a material for artistic expression and craftsmanship.

From tree to furniture

It all starts with the selection of a tree: done with the vivid imagination of shapes and forms its wood might take, thus with a piece of furniture in mind. The trunk of the tree then reaches saw mills where they are sawn under personal supervision. The logs are stored for at least 6 months and then again kept for a month in a drying chamber where the wood loses most of its moisture, retaining just enough malleability for it to be shaped in desired forms.

The transformation of these logs into pieces of furniture is a painstaking process of patience and perseverance and entails use of fine skills, meticulous planning and specialised tools and finishing materials from China and Japan. Solid Bench’s designs are minimalistic, inspired by Japanese woodcrafters and designers.

SolidBench’s designs are minimalistic

The founders

Hitesh Sharma and Anant Khirbat founded Solid Bench. They were contemporaries at Delhi College of Engineering (now known as Delhi Technological University). Both, in different years, also read for their business degrees at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. They got together, after their own entrepreneurial and corporate careers, in 2009 to found a packaging startup (a successful company now) that provides innovative solutions to some leading automotive and heavy engineering companies, among others.

Their passion for wood was born out of their inquisitiveness when they frequently visited various saw mills across India to source wooden pallets and special wooden boxes used for packaging for their clients. They first experimented, as a serious hobby, with making furniture with pallets and soon they got interested in other timbers. Anant, whom I have known since 2005, is a keen and passionate learner (if you hear him talk about wood you will know what I mean!). Hitesh learnt carpentry on the side while running the packaging company along with Anant. I do not know him as well as I know Anant; but I have heard stories from Anant about his indefatigable quest for perfection.

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