Wood You Believe It?

If you know anything about Italy’s “chair triangle,” the industrial region in the country’s northeast corner, you probably associate it with traditional wood designs. While many of the 1,300 companies located there continue to excel with that material, their methods aren’t necessarily so traditional anymore. At this year’s Promosedia, an international exhibition devoted entirely to—you guessed it—chairs, the efforts of one manufacturer in particular stood out.

Novecentoundici—founded two years ago as a brand extension of the more conventional company Billiani—is overseen by the designer Marco Ferreri. He’s best known in the United States for a wood chair called Less, part of a series that was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1995 exhibition Mutant Materials. So when is wood a “mutant material”? When it behaves like upholstery. The designs featured cushions covered in Legnocuoio, a wood veneer that is thermally bonded to another material, in this case a flexible backing with foam padding underneath. The soft seat is pliable and surprising to touch.

Originally the designs were sold through a company called Nemo, which has since stopped producing furniture. Two years ago, when Billiani contacted Ferreri and told him they’d like to resume production of the chair, the designer made a counteroffer. “I saw their products and decided it was probably a better idea to make a different sort of product for them using the wood-production strengths they already had,” he says. “It would be a different sort of company.” The result was Novecentoundici—a perfect forum to expand on the ten years of work Ferreri had already put into developing Legnocuoio.

Ferreri has used Legnocuoio in two other chair designs for Novecentoundici: Foglia and Tesa. “Foglia is an exploration of the lightness of wood,” he says. Though it’s made of hardwood (bonded to a polyester sheet), it weighs just 7.5 pounds. “An interesting discovery that came out of our work with the material is that over time body heat makes the chair adapt to the sitter’s body,” he explains. “When that person gets up, the chair returns to its original form.” Tesa, which bonds the veneer to leather and wraps it in tension around a steel frame, is another unexpected application for wood. So unexpected, in fact, that most people assume it’s plastic. “Tesa is a beautiful chair,” Ferreri admits, “but I’m not sure it’s the right chair for showing the material.”

Ferreri’s next Legnocuoio design probably won’t be a chair, or any other kind of furniture. Rather, it’s something that has piqued the interest of Mercedes, Mitsubishi, and BMW. He’s developing a version injected with plastic so the veneer can be molded into virtually any shape; right now he’s experimenting with dashboards—mutant material indeed.

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