Designer Veneers Bring Nature to the Surface

Piero Lissoni, Kengo Kuma, and Campana Brothers create natural wood veneers that are "more real than real."
Designed for ALPI by Piero Lissoni, the Legacy Collection recreates nearly extinct species like ebony, teak, wengé, rosewood and zebrawood. All photos courtesy ALPI

Whether it’s the steel shell of a car, ceramic floor tile in a vestibule, or the plastic casing around a desk phone, designers use surfaces not only to contain but also to give meaning to the spaces and objects around us. But how does this relationship change when the brief calls for the design of the surface itself, independent of any application?

This is the challenge that renowned veneer manufacturer ALPI recently put to the architect Kengo Kuma and designers Campana Brothers and Piero Lissoni. Each was tasked with developing a line of wood veneers with broad application using ALPI’s advanced production facilities in Modigliana, Italy.

Workers at the ALPI factory in Modigliana, Italy examine materials in preparation for reconstruction.

In use for centuries, veneer typically refers to thinly sliced sheets of wood produced for the purpose of decorating furniture, small keepsakes, and casework like jewelry boxes. Traditionally a mark of high craftsmanship and precision, veneering was prized by buyers and craftsmen alike for its use in aesthetic enhancement. The application of a thin layer of rare material to a more common substrate let owners enjoy a more exquisite outer surface, while the craftsmen stretched their use of an exotic wood species. As furniture production industrialized, wooden veneer remained in use, but, with solid wood substrates replaced by engineered products like plywood and particleboard, the surface covering came to be seen by the public less as a technique of beautification and more as a cover up.

Common tree species like poplar, lime, or ayous are cut into thin sheets, to be used later as components in reconstitution.

It is perhaps with the goal of shifting this negative perception that ALPI turned to the reputable group of designers and architects. For Piero Lissoni, the design process began with intimately familiarizing himself with the unique production capabilities at ALPI’s plant. “In working so closely with a factory,” he says, “you have to first study them to understand the possibilities, technologically speaking.”

Presliced sheets of real wood are pressed and glued into a “new log.”

Unlike conventional veneer, which is produced by joining sequential slices of the desired tree species into larger sheets, ALPI’s veneers are reconstituted. Here, thin sheets of sustainably grown poplar, lime, or ayous are stacked, glued, and pressed into a large block. This “new log” is then resliced, this time perpendicular to the axis of the original sheets, with the layered striations of the cross section appearing as a recognizable wood grain pattern. By dying, sequencing, bending, and otherwise pre-processing the original sheets, this procedure can accurately reproduce the look of any wood species.

“We really tried to produce something that was more real than real,” Lissoni reflects. Indeed, looking at his Xilo 2.0 collection (which artificially recreates the joint lines typical in traditional veneer), or the Legacy Collection (which reproduces species that are nearly extinct), it’s difficult to not let the rich complexity of pattern, line, and tone that’s so unique to wood intrigue and delight the eye. “The goal,” Lissoni recalls, “was to achieve, artificially and by reconstruction, the most beautiful and most realistic wood.”

Xilo 2.0 collection by Piero Lissoni for ALPI.

The ambitions were no less lofty for Fernando and Humberto of the Campana Brothers. They see their two collections ALPI Pirarucu and ALPI Piaçava as “telling stories of nature” which are inspired by the Amazon. Pirarucu is reminiscent of the scales of the namesake fish, while the filamented Piaçava is a direct reference to the Amazonian palms whose dried, fibrous fronds are extensively used for thatched roofs and brooms.

Veneer collections ALPI Pirarucu and ALPI Piaçava, by the Campana Brothers, reference natural elements of the Amazon like fish scales and palm tree fiber.

Similarly, for architect and designer Kengo Kuma, for whom “trees are multi-faceted creatures,” the goal of the project was to reveal “a face that has been unknown.”

His collections Maritime Pine and Japanese Cedar deliver on this ambition by showing what a slice through the bark of a tree would look like. The stunning results have even suggested to the architect, who is well versed in wood, potentially new creative horizons. “In architecture, I would say that wood is the material with the highest potential and I could see that from our work with ALPI I found some new vocabulary.”

Kengo Kuma’s collections Maritime Pine and Japanese Cedar reference the distinctive bark patterns of the species.

It is perhaps surprising that, despite the close view of the industrial processes by which these veneers are produced, what seems to excite the designers most about these surfaces are their intimate links to nature. Then again, for artisans and craftsmen, this is hardly a paradox. Lissoni, for instance, sees the project as just another take on the long tradition of emphasizing the “artifice of nature,” as he puts it, and draws direct connections to the pre-industrial, 15th-century Italian craft of intarsia (decorative and illustrative wooden inlay).

In fact, it is precisely this kind of technological innovations that today allow many designers as well consumers to feel the beauty and power of the natural world, not just on family heirlooms, but on surfaces even as large as entire walls or ceilings. For architects and designers looking to elevate their next project, ALPI’s designer collection of veneers bring beauty and meaning to the surface.


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