Design Sketches by Win Assakul
From the beginning...
'I feel very fortunate and deeply honoured to have been offered this fantastic opportunity to work with the some of the world’s best designers and makers. Amanda Levete is not only someone I look up to highly; she has also been my mentor and support throughout my architectural career. Having worked at AL_A during my year out, I had the chance to learn from and design alongside some of the most forward thinkers in the industry, a fantastic team to which I am forever indebted, having helped to develop me into the designer that I am today.
Having returned to my studies and whilst in the process of completing my final year at the Architectural Association, I was approached by Amanda and invited to take part in Terence Conran's latest project, "The Wish List", a collaboration of the most famous and successful names in design. I almost didn't believe it.
Of course I was in the middle of my finals, so I was naturally very apprehensive about taking on such a project. How could I hope to do my very best on one without compromising the other? But how could I say no? Projects like these are once in a lifetime! Both were extremely important to me and I already knew the answer, but after much deliberation, the only option for me was to give 100% of my effort to both.
Amanda was clear with her brief. She needed a long fruit bowl to run down the length of her gloss black dining table. This in itself was already a fantastic brief. However, it needed to be "extendable" up to 3m, incorporate a beautiful joint detail, AND breakdown into smaller components so that it can be stored in box, which should be equally as beautiful as the bowl itself... Simple!
I went away and spent the next few days trying to design Amanda's bowl of dreams whilst finding a way to make my own school project stand up. I came up with numerous designs, a bowl that could be disassembled, a folding bowl that had an exquisite joint detail, a box that was also a bowl that contained the pieces to make a longer bowl within, but by the end of the week, I still did not have a design that fulfilled all of my mentor's requirements.
I had most of my weekly meetings with Amanda before school. It was refreshing, and a rare chance to spend an hour or so talking shop with, quite possibly, the busiest person I have ever met. The first time I showed her the options, it was rather difficult. I could tell that none of them really struck a chord with her. Even though it’s part of the job, it’s always frustrating to have poured so much effort and spent so many hours on something only to have it dismissed.
In the end, a little advice from Amanda proved to be a revelation. “Don’t try so hard. Spend less time on it.” It was so beautifully clear and simple. I had been so caught up in the excitement of the project, trying to force all my concepts into a single object that I had forgotten to really take a step back and let the main ideas come forwards by themselves. Distilling the most critical areas of the brief, and prioritising the various functions of the bowl allowed the piece to almost design itself. By the second meeting it was ready.
We went with American Black Walnut, a dark and luxurious hardwood hiding a deep and intricate grain. Being very rare, at only around 4% of the entire sustainable stock it was important for us that the design would do the wood justice. '
The grain in American Black Walnut is truly spectacular. However, what is visible on the surface is only a fraction what is contained within. Therefore, it was imperative that the bowl should be as heavily contoured as possible, cutting deep into the wood itself to expose the character and beauty of the grain within. The contours were so deep that at some points we only had 4mm of walnut left!
The entire design rested on the fact that the bowl must be adjustable in size with the addition or removal of individual units. The joint design was initially the most daunting, but in the end resolved by a simple yet beautiful dovetail key made from the same walnut that connects two ends of each unit together. This system however, requires a thick mass of wood to support it and this is where the bowl was designed to be thickest. This defined the areas that required thickness for strength and also allowed me to see the parts where I could remove material and heavily contour the geometry. The result is an undulating surface touching down where support is required and vaulting upwards where it is not, creating a bridge-like structure.
Having a heavily contoured underbelly left little thickness to work with on the topside. Therefore, the top was designed primarily as a flat surface allowing it to be used for cold meats and cheeses while fruits can be nestled in the deeper contours when the bowl is flipped over. The duality of its possible uses is also reflected in the wood grain on each side, with the geometry of the bowls creating dramatically different grain patterns. The flatter topside reveals a continuous pattern running the length of the bowl while the underbelly creates concentric rings to indicate the contoured areas.
Designed to be simple and as beautiful as the bowl itself is the box that will hold individual pieces. The box itself has no lid. Instead, it functions in a similar way to a chest of drawers, using the edge of the bowls as runners, and sliding into routed grooves within the box. The idea was that the box should seem like a solid block of wood from which the pieces of the bowl are hewn.
As a finishing touch, a delicate brass inlay is fashioned around the edge of the bowl. It required an incredible level of accuracy to ensure that the overall finish was jewel like in quality. With almost everything having a purpose, I’m always questioned as to what the brass inlay does. The answer is that it’s unashamedly decorative, almost more work that it was worth but I am pleased with the overall result. I have allowed myself this small luxury, and take satisfaction in knowing that Amanda would never have done this for herself.
The Hand of the Maker
The fusion of digital design and the handmade is a recurring theme in the work of AL_A and this has heavily influenced the way that I design. The initial plan had been to fully design the geometry digitally and then pass it over to the CNC machine to mill out each individual unit identically, before finishing by hand. It was a way of working which I had considered my strength. I was very comfortable and confident it could be done. But it was not to be, and I am so glad and better off for it.
I started this project with only a background in architecture. The very nature of our work creates a level of disconnection with the projects and products that we create. It is rare that we end up actually making the projects that we design. A preliminary design meeting at the Benchmark headquarters with Sean Sutcliffe and Peter Lowe made me realise how little I actually know about wood. Everything had been designed from the relative comfort and safety of a computer screen. I remember Sean picking up on a small detail and telling me: “If you do that, the wood will tear itself apart!”.
However, the critical point came when Sean sat me down and convinced me to abandon digital fabrication. After all, this project was conceived to expose us as young designers to handcraft. Making each piece of the bowl by hand would imbue every one of them with a unique character. It would absolutely reflect the hand of the maker. Having said that, it was a massive exercise in stretching one’s comfort zone. I had to completely rethink the production technique; using processes I did not know anything about whilst working with a material I had very little experience with. I was absolutely petrified.
But it was the only way I was going to learn, and I had to learn fast.