Hemlock and Sassafras chairs by studiovoll

Austin Voll established studiovoll in 2017 as a research and design studio that makes furniture through spending time with natural materials. The project has been greatly influenced by a year spent in Japan living with Toshio Tokunaga and his sister studio Ichi in Nara – studiovoll works on wood using kanna as the main tool and finish. Wood is cut by a point. As Austin points out, these ancient methods are new material research for living with wood in a more direct natural relationship. Handmade tools involve the senses in deep observation of a tree’s patterns of development, the choices it has made in its environment, its struggles curving towards the light, its relationships with its kin, and the others that make up shared ecosystems. studiovoll conducts research into how living spaces can be made more harmonious with natural networks.

Hemlock and Sassafras chairs

Hemlock and Sassafras are a collection of three natural backrest chairs made with Kanna – a deceptively simple tool, originating from Japan, used to cut through the fibers of wood. Kanna is a sensitive instrument, consisting only of a tapered steel blade fitted with pressure into a wooden block.  The wooden block (dai) is made by hand to suit the craftsperson’s specific needs whether it is for shaping complex curvatures or perfectly flat surfaces.

studiovoll: Using kanna is about experiencing the tree in ways that would otherwise be impossible to reach with other ways of sensing.  The tool hybridizes the senses giving them a new lens to focus through. When using Kanna, I use my body to support, touch, and most importantly, listen to the tone of the steel edge cutting as it recites each of the seasons of the tree’s growth. The surface of the woodcut with Kanna shares the cellular structure so cleanly that water droplets will bead up on it instead of soaking in. Light reflects off of it like a mirror. The colors and textures of wood appear true to their lively nature without the need for oils or coatings to bring it alive. There is no illusion of smoothness or richness of color; the tree reveals itself under the influence of the Kanna‘s cut.  These discoveries and guidances from the tree’s wood are important to have close; to live with.

The Beginning
studiovoll: I have started to visualize parts of my work, not by rendering, but with its analogue.  I treat junctions between seat and back as a piece of architecture. In my mind, I begin exploring as if I were the size of a fly. I change scale, moving around the space I reconstruct its attributes and once back at human scale its uses must change. Furniture is useful but its meanings can change.

studiovoll: The backrests of these three chairs were found in local forests. Selection becomes paramount. I wanted to learn from the forest’s curvatures and design for them. First identifying tree species that would support body shapes through backrests, considering different ways of how we may rest against a tree, and then identifying specific trees that would least impact the ecosystem by harvesting them. I found sassafras ideal for its winding curvatures and eastern hemlock branches for their retention of colorful bark after drying. Both are native to Pennsylvania and are not widely used by timber industries. The natural backrest forces the design process into one that finds harmony in asymmetry.  

The importance of Kanna
studiovoll: The importance of using Kanna, specifically for chairs, is that you can feel when you have cut a good curve. Working with Kanna gets you to know the tree intimately and through that relationship, you discover the best way to bring out its elegance. I do not exclusively design, pattern, or layout curvatures. I feel through Kanna what the wood wants to give me, and then I go from there adjusting my conceptions to bring out innate gestures. This process I sometimes think of as producing healing curvatures. The understanding between the tree and I translates into something that is more comfortable around the home as well as to sit on. 

Main Challenges
studiovoll: At first, wanting to make longer seating with larger backrests that suit the horizontality of felled trees, these three chairs were a challenge of the opposite scale– to see if I could also work with small single-seat chairs with as few supporting elements as possible.  Each chair consists of a backrest, a back or column that doubles as a foot, a seat, and at least one extra leg holding the rest up.  Each is built intuitively in that order, making adjustments to my preconceptions as well as to actual parts of the chair as they come together. 

studiovoll: The sassafras backrest chair was probably the hardest to have all the elements working nicely together.  It was the ends of the backrest that needed to change in angle and roundness, so both were leaning in the same general direction. It wasn’t until that was worked out that the chair started to relax in the way that I envisioned. 

Available Works:
Title: Hemlock armchair
Materials: Hemlock branch grafted to Spanish cedar backrest finished with gradated Sumi ink stick, coopered red oak back, red oak front leg finished with Sumi ink, reclaimed old-growth redwood seat, all shaped and finished by Kanna (Japanese hand plane), ceramic finish.
Dimensions: 38 x 58 x 68 cm (40 cm seat height) | Price: 3200€

Title: Hemlock backrest chair
Materials: Hemlock branch backrest with Sumi ink stick on end grain, coopered butternut back, reclaimed old-growth redwood seat, coopered red elm foot with Sumi ink stick on curly white oak at the ground, all shaped and finished by Kanna (Japanese hand plane), ceramic finish.
Dimensions: 58 x 66 x 40 cm (41 cm seat height) | Price: 3200€

Title: Sassafras backrest chair
Materials: Sassafras tree backrest with hand-ground pine shoot Sumi ink stick, red elm legs, reclaimed redwood seat, shaped and finished by Kanna (Japanese hand plane), ceramic finish.
Dimensions: 53 x 50 x 68 cm | Price: 3200€

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