Championing Sustainability Through Design

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) is championing a sustainable material-first approach that is led by resource availability rather than trends. Their recent efforts saw them collaborate with inspiring designers from around the world who added their unique touches to bring life to wood.

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has been collaborating with designers around the world to bridge the gap between the design industry and the naturally regenerating forests that supply American hardwoods, and to call for a sustainable material-first design approach that is led by resource availability rather than trends.


“The relentless pursuit of ever-changing trends has led to overexploitation of certain wood species, disregarding the rich diversity of natural resources available. Moreover, trends that prioritise flawless, uniform appearances incentivise practices that may compromise the integrity and resilience of forests and ecosystems.”

– Rocio Perez-Inigo, Director of Communications, AHEC


To truly embrace sustainability, AHEC believes the industry must shift its paradigm towards a more holistic understanding of materials. 

This begins with integrating material choice into the initial stages of the design process, prioritising responsibly sourced, renewable natural materials and investing time and effort in learning and understanding their unique characteristics and potential. 

Rather than treating natural materials as like-for-like substitutes for man-made equivalents, design must recognise and celebrate their inherent qualities and imperfections as part of their charm and authenticity. 

By adopting this mindset and approach, we can foster a more sustainable design ethos that respects and preserves the natural world while meeting the needs of contemporary design aesthetics.


Milan Design Week

For AHEC, Milan Design Week has always been a crucial date on the calendar. The April event provides an unparalleled opportunity not only to showcase the design possibilities of sustainable hardwoods, but also to provide a platform for creative collaborations with extraordinary emerging and established talents.

At this year’s Salone del Mobile, AHEC shone the spotlight on maple—a valuable yet underused hardwood with a delicate colour and a beautifully fine grain. 

Two UK studios participating in the Wallpaper* ‘Class of ’24’ exhibition at the Triennale were commissioned to create new work in maple: the artist and architect Giles Tettey Nartey, and Parti, the interdisciplinary studio founded in 2015 by Eleanor Hill and Tom Leahy.


“We take immense joy in collaborating with creatives due to the unique opportunities it offers us as an organisation representing both an industry and a precious natural resource. Over the past two decades, we've cultivated fruitful collaborations with architects and designers to showcase the diverse possibilities of the sustainable timbers we represent.”

– David Venables, European Director, AHEC


Supported by AHEC and Jan Hendzel Studio, each used maple as a material springboard to explore and experiment, creating two very different bodies of work from a common starting point. 


“For us, it's about balancing traditional joinery methods with pushing the capabilities of digital machining. In these projects, we are celebrating the use of American maple, a beautiful creamy white, very hard, dense-grained timber, with an almost illustrative grain patterning. The challenge for us is in mastering how far we can push it.”

– Jan Hendzel, founder, Jan Hendzel Studio


Communion by Giles Tettey Nartey

Making his Milan debut, the British-Ghanaian designer Giles Tettey Nartey used the commission as an opportunity to explore culture, culinary tradition, and the rituals of domestic life in Ghana. 

Created from maple, which is dense and durable, Communion is a table designed for the making of fufu—a West African staple food, which is made by pounding cassava into a dough. 

Nartey’s table reimagines this practice as a communal performance, in which everyone comes together in the shared act of making food.

His design features an outer table equipped with dents, grooves, bowls, and bumps to enhance the preparation and cooking process, while a central table is dedicated to serving and communal dining. 

Included within the design are mortars (woduro) and pestles (woma) for grinding cassava, along with seating inspired by both traditional Ashanti stools and typical kitchen stools found in Ghana.

Through its form, Communion aims to elevate the act of pounding cassava to the level of performance, one person pounding, another turning the mixture in an almost choreographed fusion of movement and sound that is akin to dance.


“Communion focuses on the rituals that bring to life the objects in our homes, presenting them not just as lifeless items filling our spaces but as artefacts rich with emotional and spiritual meaning, animated through our daily routines. For me it’s also a question of functionality, and whose functionality we admire and give space to. The piece celebrates a practice that is so local to West Africa presented in a new way which gives emphasis to the ‘communal’ by allowing multiple people to participate in the process of making fufu. The everyday local ritual is therefore transformed into performance, exposing the beauty I have always seen in everyday Ghanaian life.” 

– Giles Tettey Nartey, creative


Pirouette by Parti

Inspired by the fluid movement of fabric and the childlike joy of spinning around, Parti’s Pirouette collection is a range of timber furniture that explores complex geometric forms.

Translating the folds and creases of twisting and billowing fabric into the solid forms of seats and tables is a demanding and complicated process, usually associated with sculpture and the highest levels of craftsmanship. 

Collaborating with Jan Hendzel Studio, Parti embarked on a journey of experimentation, pushing the boundaries of a three-axis CNC machine to sculpt the wood and develop the furniture.


“Hand-sculpting fabric out of heavy materials is something we’ve seen throughout history. At Parti, however, we are interested in utilising new technologies and processes, and pushing them to the limit. As a result, the making process is integral to the design, informing its boundaries. The final design is achieved through a process of negotiation between the expression of the piece and the process of making it. Although it would be easier to design a one-off, hand-crafted object, we wanted to push the limits of new technology to create a feasibly manufactured product.”  

– Eleanor Hill, director, Parti


Maple’s density makes it especially suited to the creation of sculptural shapes through CNC cutting. Because the CNC machine cuts only one side of the wood, the forms are simplified, with each piece constructed from a series of complex shapes connected together, with top and bottom elements acting as ‘keys’ to lock everything together and sustain the furniture’s structure. 

Running diagonally across the twisting timber ‘skirt’, the wood’s silky grain contributes to a sense of fluidity and motion within the pieces, which are tactile and dynamic, reminiscent of dancers frozen in the moment. 

Despite Pirouette’s intricate appearance, meticulous attention to detail ensures that the manufacturing process remains streamlined and efficient, allowing for a seamless blend of complexity and simplicity in each piece.


Discovered Singapore

A curation of designs from the original London Exhibition, Discovered Singapore presents a visionary group of young creatives in an extraordinary showcase of furniture, objects and sculptural works in wood.

Discovered Singapore provides a platform for new creatives and an opportunity for talented emerging designers to showcase their work to the public and the industry at Singapore’s premier design venue.

Selected from the original global line up of 20, the 10 designers exhibiting in Singapore this May worked alongside design mentors and AHEC’s global manufacturing partners to each develop an object made from their choice of four sustainable hardwoods: American red oak, cherry and hard and soft maple.

Throughout the project, designers were supported by AHEC’s technical experts, and mentored by established designers Nathan Yong (Singapore) and Adam Markowitz (Australia).


“The original iteration of Discovered was conceived to engage and inspire the next generation of talented young designers. After a successful exhibition in London and then Milan, it is wonderful to have the opportunity for the 10 designers from the Asia Pacific region to exhibit their work closer to home in the design hub that is Singapore. 

-John Chan, Director Southeast Asia and Greater China, AHEC


The collaboration was initiated during the pandemic. Selected designers were invited to think freely about their experience of living and working in isolation, responding to themes of touch, reflection and strength, and to channel their own experiences into a piece that represents our functional and emotional connection to everyday objects. 

The designers considered ideas such as identity and cultural heritage, family and social ritual and the inherent comfort of touch.


“This project has not only enabled us to provide young designers with valuable learning experience on product design and development with sustainable hardwoods, it has also been an opportunity to work again with established design mentors and the best manufacturers in Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. They are leading the way in making efforts to ensure sustainable design is also sustainably made.”

– Rod Wiles, Director Oceania, AHEC


This collaboration has resulted in a highly diverse selection of objects, ranging from functional furniture such as cabinets, tables and seats to more abstract, sculptural works that inspire reflection. 

Taken as a whole, Discovered represents how experiences of a changing world have impacted each designer’s personal and creative journeys.


Thought Bubble by Nong Chotipatoomwan

A nostalgia for travel and social interaction guided Chotipatoomwan’s creative thinking through her project. 

Physical transitions were replaced with changing states of mind, and the physical realm merged with the psychological realm through domestic space. 

The designer looked at furniture created for relaxation, and landed on a rocking motion, which became the basis for her chair, offering a mix of relaxation and repetitive movement to enhance mindfulness. 

She used red oak for the chair because she was fascinated by its grain. “It’s quite expressive and I was interested in its porous nature.”


Pari Pari by Kodai Iwamoto

For his project, Iwamoto researched traditional Japanese techniques, such as uzukuri (giving texture to wood by scrubbing) and chouna (chiselling the surface with an adze), and then started experimenting directly on the wood, peeling its layers to create a new veneer. 

Working with red oak, he peeled it by cutting the panel’s edge and removing the surface by hand, resulting in a jagged effect where the texture of the grain emerges. 

These imperfectly textured panels became the starting point for a design exploration that led him to a round table shape, using the subtle material as a base to create the effect of an ancient tree trunk.


Corners Lamp by Mew Mungnatee

Mungnatee’s emotional response to the objects surrounding her took in the relationship between form, light and shadow, and with this project, she explored this connection through geometry. 

Her lamp designs, inspired by pagodas, are based on a bulb casting a shadow over surfaces below thanks to an intricate grid composition featuring wooden slats and indented corners. 


She worked with soft maple, because of the manner in which light bounces off its surface (“The wood has an opalescent gleam,” she explains) and American cherry for its ability to take stain.


The Roof Stool by Trang Nguyen

Nguyen looked at traditional Vietnamese roof tiles for her project, creating a collection of nesting stools that replicate the way the tiles overlap to hide the connecting structures below. 

Her simple stool design is inspired by traditional temple architecture and Vietnamese dresses, and features pins made of contrasting wood at the joint, which remains hidden when the stools are stacked and is revealed when they are in use. 

“I chose three different types of wood; cherry, red oak and maple, because of their colour differences,” explains Nguyen. “By randomly using two of the species for the pins and another one for the rest for the stool, users can explore the various timbers when they unstack each piece.” 

As people have been spending more time at home, her design is imagined to provide additional seats, while creating a beautiful composition when not in use.


Ikare by Taiho Shin

During his time in isolation, Shin noted that “objects help human resilience through unusual situations”, and this thought served as the basis for his project. 

Guided by the ‘Ikea effect’ (consumers place higher value on products they partially created), he thought of a half-made design that users could partly assemble to foster interaction with their objects. 

He created one small table, put together thanks to an ingenious but simple-to-use joint system (no glue necessary), and the design multiplies to create a stackable system of shelves, suitable for different spaces. 

He chose hard maple, as the density of the timber means the joint can be moved in and out without crushing the fibre of the wood.


Reframe by Ivana Taylor

Taylor’s own experience of solitude led to extensive periods of reflection, ultimately inspiring her to change her approach to designing and making. 

For this project, she aimed to “design a contemplative sculptural object that triggered reflection on the multi-layered nature of any experience, including isolation”. 

A recurring theme of her research featured ways of framing a view at different scales, and the resulting design is a sculpture made from a series of small carved objects that layer to create a composition acting as a ‘sculpted path for light’. 

Working with three woods, Taylor was interested in exploring different material hollows, cutting each layer to expose the wood’s grain.


Winding Stream by Wang Yunhan

Unable to carry out certain customs during lockdown, people are confined to performing rituals at home. There is a novel need for suitable furniture and objects that can fit a small space but serve the same purpose. 

Wang wanted to create a domestic alternative to the ‘winding stream party’, a Chinese drinking custom in which poetry is composed while a cup is floated down a stream with people sat on both sides; the person sitting in front of the cup that stops has to drink it. 

Inspired by Hakka round houses, Wang created a compact table design with storage concealed in the legs and a central slit to fit trays and cups. 

The table is also equipped with a drain so users can dispose of their water through the twisting gully, and it then trickles into a waste bucket housed in the main leg. 

Wang chose hard maple for Winding Stream because she was drawn to the light colour, and the timber has been spray-painted to prevent rot from setting in.


Luxta Me (Beside me) by Vivienne Wong

Dancer-turned-designer Wong looked at non-verbal communication as the starting point of her project, approaching the task from a personal point of reflection and knowledge. 

“I wanted to translate my previous understanding of how we can connect and communicate,” she says, and looked to create a piece to nurture strength, intimacy and connection. 

Invisible physical boundaries and the creation of textures through light formed the basis of the project, which developed into a coffee table featuring interlocking echoed forms, where the functional joinery also became a decorative motif for the piece. 

Wong chose American cherry because of its grain and colour.

“It has a beautiful warmth in its pinkish, red hue,” she says. “I felt that supported everything I was trying to put into this piece.” Her design’s name (using the Latin word for ‘beside’) represents the desire for human connection and closeness that guided the process.


Recollect by Tan Wei Xiang

Searching for a tangible physical connection to loved ones (beyond virtual calls), Tan turned to keepsakes as a way to fight nostalgia. 

His keepsakes cabinet is imagined as a way to hold, preserve and give respect to the items we hold dear. Its forms were inspired by Singapore’s ubiquitous construction sites and the ridged zinc sheets used to protect them. 

Tan recreated this motif as the outer shell of his tall, lean cabinet, and created curved shelves to sit inside it, with a mirrored, polished brass circle, mimicking the sun setting on the horizon. 

The designer had worked with maple before but never from the American hardwood forests and, for this project, he selected a combination of hard maple of different thicknesses to achieve the ‘crinkled’ effect on the shell, and red oak for the curved shelves inside.


Shelter Within by Duncan Young

Young focused on the materiality of timber, and how this organic material can help us connect with nature while confined at home. 

“For those in dense urban environments, lockdowns have impacted our physical and mental strength by limiting the biological need humans have for being in outdoor spaces,” he says. 

He looked at studies analysing the positive impact of nature on physical and mental health, and in response created a modern cabinet of curiosities as a pillar to nature, for the user to engage with the natural world while at home. 

Featuring a solid carcass with discreet joinery and a moiré-effect shelf (a design inspired by the historic symbolism of the cabinet as a theatre), the simple plinth includes two glass sculptural elements handmade at Young’s studio, refracting and distorting the light to evoke the effect of walking beneath a canopy of trees. 

Young used hard maple to create the carcass. “It’s such a pared-back timber,” he explains. “It has a gentle grain structure and I thought the lightness would soften the heaviness of my piece’s form.”



An undoubtable highlight of the HAWA expo in Ho Chi Minh in March this year was the display of the Hoa Mai Furniture competition finalists’ designs. 

This was the 20th year of collaboration between The Handicraft and Wood Industry Association of HCMC (HAWA) and AHEC and the outcome of this long-established design competition did not disappoint. 

With over 320 initial entries, a shortlist of 111 was whittled to the top 11 in the open category which were manufactured and displayed.

All the pieces were created from American red oak, the most abundant species in the US forest resource. 

Similar in strength and grain to its better-known cousin, American white oak, American red oak is more readily available and thus a cost-effective option for high quality furniture design. 

The young designers were given the opportunity to experience this premium quality, sustainable material to realise their creative visions.


First Prize: Blank Bench by Vo Tran Thanh Quang

Majoring in Industrial Design at the University of Architecture in HCMC, Quang took the highest honour of first prize for Plank Bench. 

Created with an efficient and streamlined production process in mind, the design is a study in simplicity, functionality and elegant beauty.  

Quang commented of the material “I believe American red oak is a great choice for my design. It's sturdy, durable, and perfectly suits my simple, traditional structure. The colour of red oak is something many designers have to consider, but for me, its natural hue is beautiful, gentle, and elegant”.


Second Prize: Flippo by Nguyen Anh Tuan

Anh Tuan was inspired by the resourcefulness of the people of Saigon when designing his Flippo chair. 

Striving for the most efficient use of material as possible, he chose a single American red oak plywood panel which he moulded to create all the components of the chair.  

Not only did this minimise waste but Anh Tuan found the manufacturing process pleasingly simple given the easy workability of the wood. 

Of his role as an emerging Vietnamese design talent, he says: “The design industry in Vietnam is becoming more vibrant than ever. As a developing nation, we are influenced by Western culture to a certain extent and draw inspiration from Eastern artistic elements. Moreover, our design workforce is still very young, which contributes to a unique perspective in thinking and seeking solutions. We dare to think and dare to act.”


Third Prize: Son by Vu Thanh Thao

A student at Hanoi Architectural University where she is majoring in Interior Design, Thanh Thao’s design ‘Son’ is inspired by The Huc Bridge—a symbol of the cultural beauty of her home city of Saigon. 

The legs of the stained American red oak cabinet mimic the sturdy bridge piers, the doors are symbolic of the spans of the bridge. The red stain is evocative of the bridge itself, as are the metal details on each door of the cabinet.  

She says of the Vietnamese design industry: “Vietnamese design often reflects a blend of tradition and modernity. The most significant difference may lie in the way traditional cultural elements are subtly integrated into the design, from architecture to fashion and graphics. While design in other countries may focus more on trends and technology, Vietnamese design often emphasises preserving and promoting cultural values. This creates a unique and recognisable identity for Vietnamese design on the international stage.”


Honourable Prize: Nego Cabinet by Nguyen Hoang Oanh

Inspired by a love of colour, Hoang Oanh took advantage of the ability of American red oak to accept stain and colour given its porous cell structure. 

Inspired by Lego, the Nego Cabinet balances simplicity with vibrant colour blocking. 

She says of the material “After participating in the contest and using American red oak in the design, I realised that the more evenly grained the wood is, the less defects it has, which saves cost and brings high product quality.”


Honourable Prize: Cai Then by Nguyen Van Dang and Hoang Thi Anh Thu

The design duo from Hanoi Architectural University says of their ‘Cai Then’ table, “Childhood is always the most beautiful memory for us. The idea of the table was sparked by the thought of a child playing chess with his grandfather. Those memories are priceless for our age group that perhaps children in modern society rarely experience. With the purpose of connecting generations in the family through traditional games, we designed chess and Chinese chess boards with flexible functions and shaped like a ‘then cai’.”  

In Vietnamese, "then cai" is a means of connecting two parts of a door together, similar to a door lock but in a simpler form and usually made from wood. 

“As the name suggests, that latch is part of the puzzle that connects modern families through direct interaction between generations in the family” the pair explain.


Honourable Prize: C-Smart-1.0 by Tran Huu Khoa

Khoa was motivated by the concept of circular design in the creation of the C-Smart-1.0 table. 

Frustrated by the ease with which people dispose of furniture which is only slightly damaged, Khoa considered the role of design in enabling repair and reuse of furniture. 

“The goal is to reduce waste and energy consumption for entire life of the product” he says. A sentiment that aligns with the core sustainability credentials of American hardwood species.


Honourable Prize: Nhánh by Luu Nhu Ngoc

Ngoc describes herself as a ‘newbie’ in the design community. 

Curious and eager to learn, her design ‘Nhánh’ takes its inspiration from the electricity poles of Saigon. Its minimalist design is adaptable to different purposes, making it both convenient but also requires minimal production time.

Rate this item
(0 votes)

FDMAsia About Us

For almost 30 years, FDM Asia has been the publication of choice for woodworking professionals in Asia Pacific, providing the latest news and expert insights of a diverse range of topics including process technologies, furniture production, panels manufacturing, raw materials handling and sustainability issues.

We have one of the most comprehensive woodworking database and e-media programme to assist you in your e-marketing and give you an exclusive opportunity to connect to our 25,152 online subscribers.