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In conversation with Tom Wilson, Curio Studio

Tom Wilson, designer of  ‘Forest Dwellers’ – everyone’s forever, eye-catching, loveable African animals – talks to the Timber Trade Federation on his design idea and wider sustainability inspirations.

Tom Wilson started Curio Studio in 2013, as a practicing architect “born out of a desire to practice a more complete creating process, enabling design and making to inform one another, in a way that they can only do when the designer is the maker”. In many aspects, Tom summarises the very designers we hoped to appeal to. He understands the importance of material provenance, is clued up with sustainability and responsible sourcing and recognises his role in presenting designs which continue these conversations. Tom is the designer and maker of the Forest Dwellers creations – everybody’s favourite forest creatures.

Engaging with Tom is inspiring. He continually approaches any challenge with decorum and flare, turning all avenues into opportunities.  He has reminded me constantly why our work more broadly on raising awareness of climate change and the interconnection which marriage specifying and more commonly using timber with our FLEGT communication project. It would be fair to say that Tom was not an advocate initially of using tropical timbers, but I hope, as you can see reflected in his answers below that he has further researched, explored and realised the positives and strengthens which can be imparted from specifying FLEGT-licensed timber.

Lucy: What was your first impression of the brief?

Tom: I was immediately interested. The brief seemed pretty open in terms of what could be designed, and that appealed. I am an architect as well as a designer-maker, and so am interested in design at the hand-held scale as well as the larger scale of buildings. I concluded that something smaller and hopefully precious felt appropriate.

Lucy: Prior to designing for this project, how would you describe your understanding of timber legality, sustainability or FLEGT?

Tom: I had a pretty good understanding of the various bodies involved in certifying timber legality and chain of custody, such as FSC and PEFC, largely through my work as an architect. I have tended to steer clear of tropical timbers in my work, unless there is very good reason to specify and use them. For example, FSC iroko is very well suited for use externally without needing any additional treatment. I think there has been a scepticism within the industry – specifying FSC tropical timber for a project, does not necessarily mean that is what gets used. I was not aware of FLEGT before the competition, but have been really impressed by the governmental level and holistic approach to sustainability, both environmental and economic.

Lucy: In what way has the Conversations about Climate Change project led you to understand or research more into timber legality, sustainability, or the FLEGT Action Plan?

Tom: Since learning of the FLEGT action plan, I have read up a bit more on what it’s aims and intents are. For some time I have sought to use and specify reclaimed timber, timber from UK or European trees, and FSC timber. I would now perhaps consider more the use of tropical timbers, provided I could be sure of the provenance and legality of the supply chain. I would be very interested to know more about the relationship between the FLEGT action plan and FSC and PEFC certification.

Lucy: What ‘Conversation’ do you hope your design will prompt?

Tom: My design for the endangered apes to be made from tropical timber that forms the habitat of the apes was hopefully provocative. On the face of it, it seems madness to cut down precious tropical habitat to make ornamental objects. However, there might be an argument to use well managed tropical timber, if it’s use supports an economy that is focussed on protection and re-growing the forest and its inhabitants. Can the forest expand at a faster rate than it is declining? Is this only made possible through income generated by the sustainable harvest of its trees and natural resources?

Lucy: How do you view using and specifying timber as a mitigative method in the climate emergency?

Tom: I think it’s hard to think of a more truly sustainable material that sequesters carbon, and has such a wide application for the objects we use and the built environment in which we live. I would love to see timber and wood based products become standard construction in buildings. I think we are heading in the right direction but the industry is typically slow to adapt to new things. That said, there would be a point at which demand outweighs supply, which would inevitably put further pressure on forests. One also has to be very mindful of the lifespan of buildings and objects that we design and make. The carbon sequestering benefits of timber could be quickly undone if demolition and disposal (and burning) happens too soon.

Lucy: How would you describe your work?

Tom: I started designing and making objects from a desire to practice a more complete creating process, enabling design and making to inform one another, in a way that they can only do when the designer is the maker. This is much harder to do at an architectural scale. I like to try and express something of the making process within the finished object.

The scale of production is small and quite slow. I choose materials that are natural, and will often become more beautiful with age and use. I aspire to make objects that are considered, original and of heirloom quality. I think design might be more about how to make something, rather than what it should look like.

Lucy: What are your inspirations?

Tom: Inspiration to make things comes first from the colour, texture and grain of wood, and its ability to be cut, shaped and finished with fairly simple tools. Animals and birds are a repeating theme as they present so much variety in form, colour and texture. Abstracting forms down to simple lines and planes without losing the subject is always the challenge.

The wooden animals of Kay Bojesen are a continual source of inspiration, as is the work of Enzo Mari, and the paintings and illustrations of Charley Harper. As well as creating great character in their work, there is always a clear expression of the design and making process.

Lucy: What is the biggest opportunity and challenge you see looking into the future? What are your aspirations?

Tom: The twin catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss are the biggest challenges. I suspect the full implications of both will unfold in ways we have yet to imagine. Collectively we need to rethink, re-evaluate, repurpose, redesign, reforest, to slow the planet’s ailing health. With this unlearning, lies hope and opportunity.


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