The design duo’s installation of pixellated parquet in the Sculpture Gallery at Chatsworth House turns the whole interior into a piece of furniture
“It’s almost like going to Ikea,” says Shay Alkalay of Chatsworth House, the baroque palace in Derbyshire that is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. “There’s one route visitors have to follow,” he explains, “and the Sculpture Gallery is the last room, before the gift shop.”
In this long, skylit chamber, crammed with neoclassical figures, Alkalay and his partner Yael Mer, who together form Raw Edges Design Studio, have created a striking installation. The entire floor is covered in parquet, with a path that runs through the gallery – a chequerboard of coloured wood, as detailed as a mosaic, which rises up from the ground in places to form benches and chairs that resemble mushrooms or tree trunks. “The visitor can actually walk and sit on the object,” Mer says.
Last month, I visited the duo in their studio, a former piano factory in north-east London, which they share with their fellow graduates of the Royal College of Art: Peter Marigold, Tomás Alonso and Oscar Narud. It is the first day Mer has been in since giving birth to the couple’s daughter, and she remarks on the studio’s tidiness. Preparations for the Chatsworth exhibition are in full swing, and there is a strong smell of solvent in the air. Assistants are gluing planks of stained wood together, all of different colours and thicknesses, which are then cut into small, stratified blocks nicknamed “burgers”. These are then mixed up and glued together – interleaved with veneer and secured with vices – into “sausages” about a metre long. The results resemble Battenberg cake or liquorice allsorts as reimagined by Willy Wonka.
The permanent seating has been carefully placed to offer the best views of the sculptures
Considering the size of the installation, the process is surprisingly labour-intensive and DIY. In an exterior space, just outside the studio, is a row of weathered domestic cookers. In huge pots, planks of jelutong and pine (which Raw Edges found to be the most absorbent woods) simmer in stain for up to three days. Each wood responds differently to the chemicals; the shades of colour are varied by altering the soaking time and ratio of stain to water. The resulting palette, when gridded together, resembles a painting by Paul Klee. Beneath these hobs, the wood is dried in ovens. “To prepare for Chatsworth, we were here every day over Christmas and New Year to keep cooking,” says Alkalay. A tray of deep indigo timber has just been prepared.
In 2009, for an installation they created at Design Miami/Basel, Raw Edges bought flooring off the shelf, and stained these planks in 15 different colours that were then arranged in a herringbone pattern on the floor. They developed this idea for Established & Sons, and Stella McCartney commissioned them to make polychromatic flooring for her fashion stores. However, the stain wore away
At Chatsworth, for example, the tops of their benches are gridded diagonally, but at the edges, where the designers have cut curves against this grain, they have exposed loops and curlicules hidden in the depths of the wood. A pixelated block is transformed into something three-dimensional that is reminiscent of art nouveau. “You can’t predict what kind of textures you’ll see inside,” says Mer. “You just need to let go, and with the combination of the colours you get these nice effects – the wood decides what it’s going to be.” They found that the more subtle the forms that were cut, the more striking the patterns.
Above: The parquet-like installation extends throughout the
Images: Courtesy Chatsworth House Trust /Raw Edges
The jelutong and pine planks are stained for up to three days
They imagined the Sculpture Gallery transformed into a sculpture garden with their intervention, and hoped the organic forms might create the illusion of an outdoor space. The ornate edges of their seats, Mer explains, are intended to evoke leaves; the moments of colour, the dappled light through trees. “We wanted to turn the whole interior into a piece of furniture,” says Alkalay. “You know in Italian, the word for furniture is “mobile” – something you can move. Here it emerges from the floor – it grows from there, like a tree in a way.”
With curator Hannah Obee, who has placed contemporary seating by international designers (including Thomas Heatherwick, Marc Newson and Maarten Baas) throughout the collection, they long deliberated about where these permanent protrusions should sprout so as to offer the best views of the sculptures. “Unlike our other interior projects,” Alkalay says, “if we want to move them slightly to improve the overall look and feel, we can’t.”
The curves and edges of the seating reveal unexpected patterns in the wood
One of the strategically placed perches faces Canova’s outsized marble head of Napoleon. In the context of the neoclassical Sculpture Gallery, Raw Edges’ immovable seats might reference Homer’s story of Odysseus’ return. His faithful wife, Penelope, keeps her suitors at bay during his long absence and, when Odysseus returns after 20 years, she fears he may be a god in disguise. She tests this by ordering a servant to move her bed. Odysseus proves his identity by declaring this impossible. He had fabricated it himself out of the trunk of an olive tree found on the building plot, around which the house was then constructed; he knew the bed was rooted to the ground.
Raw Edges’ work in stained wood has been honoured by the Design Museum, which has selected their technique as one of the Designs of the Year for 2015. They have displayed some benches and stools there that “are inspired by the cloths that you put over the tops of jam jars”, as well as a small exhibit to showcase their method. While they are working on other projects, including a “nomadic” range of collapsible furniture in wood and leather for Louis Vuitton, which opens and closes like a Japanese fan and will be on view at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, they are keen to further mine their work in stained wood. “With this project we decided we’re just going to stick to it for a long time now,” says Alkalay. “We really want to explore this to its full potential, because we spent so much time developing it.”
Planks of stained wood are glued together into stratified blocks