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In Furniture, Marks of Distinction That Were Formerly Known as Flaws

In Furniture, Marks of Distinction That Were Formerly Known as Flaws

This article is part of our Design special section about innovative surfaces in architecture, interiors and products.

The stackable, three-legged Stool 60 is one of the Finnish brand Artek’s most recognizable pieces. But in September, the company released a twist on the classic Alvar Aalto design: stools with knotholes, insect trails and more visible wood grain — elements that are usually considered imperfections. Artek calls them “features.”

Considering that uniform pieces of light-blonde birch are one of the brand’s signatures, the “wild birch” editions, which in 2023 accounted for 2 percent of Stool 60 sales, seem like an unexpected shift. But according to Marianne Goebl, Artek’s managing director, it was a long time coming. “Because of climate change and industrialization, the forests are changing,” she said. Artek sources all of its wood from Finland, and since the trees it harvests are starting to look different, she believes the furniture made from them should look different, too.

Stool 60 Villi (Finnish for “wild”) is a collaboration between Artek and the Milanese design consultancy Formafantasma, which has made timber a particular research pet. Together, they explored how the company could become more responsive to environmental concerns.

“In design today — may that be fashion or furniture or car design — real transformative change can happen more on an infrastructural level than at the scale of a product,” said Andrea Trimarchi, Formafantasma’s co-founder. They noticed that more of a tree could be used in furniture production if the selection criteria shifted.

Embracing imperfection isn’t new in design, but it is newly relevant in discussions about ethical consumption in a changing world. There’s an acknowledgment that sustainable choices are going to look different, and what may have been considered defects in the past should instead be seen as virtues.

Grocery startups like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods have capitalized on the ugly produce movement —- selling less traditionally perfect-looking fruits and vegetables. Nose-to-tail cooking, using every edible part of an animal, is now the norm in the restaurant industry. And dead-stock fabrics, leftover pieces from mills and fabric brands, are taking over fashion. The Japanese retailer and brand Muji normalized “irregular” materials in affordable design-led products like socks woven from surplus yarns, chocolate-covered strawberries made from misshapen fruit and sap-stained wood trays. It was only a matter of time before the upper echelons of the furniture industry moved in the same direction.

When designers and artists have explored imperfection in the past, it has often been for philosophical reasons. The centuries-old Japanese concept of wabi sabi, for example, finds beauty in authenticity and the traces of passing time — in mended cracks, wilted flowers and the patina on metal. This attitude led the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi to say, “Imperfection is itself a help in guiding the artist, not perfection.”

Similarly, postmodern designers have used imperfection not for its aesthetics per se but to challenge Modernism’s dogmatic pursuit of standardization. This is what inspired Gaetano Pesce, the octogenarian Italian designer whose gloopy resin furniture introduced in the 1970s is popular once again, to have what he described (but didn’t define) as a period of “badly done” work. “I thought that machines were being used to make things perfect, and a machine is not human,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Perfection is not our characteristic.”

Even Ikea — whose hallmark is selling millions of the exact same bookcase — has flirted with imperfection. A few years ago, it collaborated with Piet Hein Eek, a Dutch designer famed for high-end cabinets and tables composed of scrap wood, on a collection including a pine bookshelf and bench made from wood that had knotholes and unruly grains.

It is one thing for eminent designers to toy artfully with imperfection but quite another to produce deliberately flawed objects on an industrial scale. A collector may cherish the individuality of a blemished piece that flagrantly shows off what makes it unique, but any aberration in an industrially produced item, where consistency is valued, is usually regarded as a quality-control issue.

This is why Artek’s birch selection became so strict in the first place. Beginning in the 1980s, Ms. Gobel said, there was a move across the design industry to standardize products so as not to disappoint consumers.

“It had nothing to do with just Artek,” she said. “It’s just people wanted to get exactly what they expected. They didn’t want something that looked different than the picture or maybe different than the thing that they had seen in the showroom.”

Now this concern with conformity is being re-evaluated. “What does perfection mean if you work with natural materials?” Ms. Gobel asked. “Ultimately, I think sustainability considerations will require a new aesthetic and this will apply to every material.”

The Swiss design company Vitra has started to replace virgin plastics (manufactured from previously unused materials) with recycled plastics, and part of this shift involves managing customers’ expectations about the material. For its new RE line of recycled-plastic Eames shell chairs (which are sold only in Europe and the Middle East because of licensing agreements), Vitra had to reformulate the green, white and yellow colors because the original dyes wouldn’t translate. (For instance, a pure white plastic can’t be achieved without bleaching agents, so the recycled-plastic stools are produced in an off-white shade called “Cotton White.”)

“You’ll always have small specks that reveal it’s recycled,” said Christian Grosen, the company’s chief design officer. “If you explain that it’s because it’s recycled material that has been turned into a long-lasting product, then that imperfection becomes a plus.”

And rather than being sheathed by veneers and lacquers, the humble mixed materials underlying the Chute Libre furniture from the French company Ligne Roset — a composite of plywood, MDF, particle board and solid-wood scraps — are proudly exposed. Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann, the executive vice president of Roset USA Corporation, said the collection represents a desire to “nurture a longstanding commitment to sustainability.”

For some design brands, leaning into imperfection makes a mass-produced item feel unique. Ranieri, an Italian manufacturer of surfaces composed of volcanic rock, looked to the aberrations in lava stone caused by air bubbles and the fluid dynamics of magma for the vibrant finishes on its new Odissea collection.

Last fall, Coil + Drift, a design studio in the Catskills, released Loon, a lighting collection whose finishes resemble patinated copper, rust and timeworn metal. “We talked a lot about wanting to see the human hand in finishes,” said John Sorensen-Jolink, the studio’s founder.

To Patricia Urquiola, the prolific creative director and furniture designer, imperfection is a key to discovering new expressions for an evolving world. “It has to do with a deep need of being able to understand and jump on evident or more subtle mutations that surround us,” she said. In 2020, she designed the Patcha carpet for CC Tapis, a custom rug maker in Milan, out of silk left over from sari factories and surplus wool. The patchwork pattern was inspired by collages spontaneously arranged from cardboard cutouts.

In addition to rethinking waste, this movement reclaims materials that have been dismissed outright. Miklu Silvanto, formerly an industrial designer with Apple, and Antti Hirvonen, an alumnus of Tom Dixon’s studio, recently launched Vaarnii, a Finnish furniture brand that uses nothing but Scots pine. Though the tree is the second-most abundant in Finland, it is soft, sensitive to humidity and has “lots of knots and weirdnesses everywhere,” Mr. Hirvonen said. “The tenderloins are not too many in a pine tree.” (For that reason, the species is usually used for lumber or pulp.)

Because the partners wanted to keep their supply chain close rather than incur the carbon footprint of overseas manufacturing, they looked for ways to work with the “psychedelic grain,” as one of Vaarnii’s collaborators called it. This was how furniture was made in Finland 100 years ago: by creatively using local materials.

“It can’t solve all of the world’s problems, but it’s a model of how we believe the furniture industry and our living spaces could be far more sustainable and beautiful,” Mr. Silvanto said.

These brands see a time when today’s imperfections will no longer be regarded as anomalous. Ms. Gobel is planning for a future when wild birch is the only birch Artek uses. Later this year, Aalto tables, chairs and benches made from the material will join the collection.

“I am confident that 10 years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘What was the problem?’” she said. “Why would you not want a little insect trail or knot or darker spot on your table?”

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