Above: A distinctly figured ‘Series 7’ chair. Designed by Arne Jacobsen this 1964 rosewood edition was nicknamed ‘Rasputin’. Photo: Fritz Hansen
Today I thought I would take a look at some of the more common woods used during the MCM period and create a basic primer of wood and wood veneers. While every type of wood has many varieties for the sake of simple introduction I have kept it to the basics here. So please enjoy MCM’s top ten woods, and if you feel I’ve missed any, please tell me in the comments. Also, a big thank you to the Wood Database for info and images.
While not used as commonly as other woods in Modern design Afromosia was used by designers and manufacturers looking for a versatile and easy material to work with. The wood color is uniform with a natural luster that runs from yellow to medium brown with either a reddish or olive hue and relatively straight grain, although sometimes interlocking grain. Looking somewhat similar, Afromosia is often mistaken for Teak and is sometimes used as a Teak substitute. Native to the African continent trade on Afromosia it tightly controlled today and listed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as an endangered species.
Used more often in European Modern design – particularly in the Scandinavian countries – Beech, typically a pale cream color with sometimes with a pink or brown hue, is very lightly figured and fairly plain. Beech veneer does however tend to be slightly darker in color as slicing the veneer usually requires the wood to be prepared with steam, which gives it a more golden tone. Beech was often used in the works of Bruno Mathsson and Aalvar Alto as it responds very well to steaming, bending, and lamination processes. A good, sustainable wood Beech is widely available, affordable and not endangered and is a great ‘starter’ wood for those considering a try at woodworking. On the rare occasion you spot some real wood at Ikea, it is often Beech.
With its pink to reddish brown coloring, with streaks of lighter variation, Cherry was very popular with European cabinet makers particularly during the MCM period. After the Second World War Many designers considered Cherry a bit of an old fashioned wood that had been mostly used either for creating little turned curios and jewelry boxes, and that it had been (perhaps) overused in a great deal of Art Deco furniture design. However some MCM designers appreciated the straight even grain and workability of Cherry and felt that the wood lent itself quite nicely to the minimal and modern aesthetic. While not CITES listed the tree is being over-harvested as it has found renewed popularity in recent years as flooring.
One of the grand dames of exotic wood in furniture design is Mahogany. With its rich color ranging from a pinkish hue to a deep reddish brown with variation streaks the wood has been popular in finer cabinetry and design for centuries. Having a rich luster and ‘chatoyancy’ Mahogany has a naturally reflective quality that catches and bounces light. Most Mahogany pieces will darken with age which can make it a little difficult to identify older pieces and, more often than not, most MCM Mahogany pieces are veneered. Not listed as endangered Mahogany is widely available but it is considered at risk.
With its pale coloring and fine even grain figuring Maple is not really a stand out wood and was used often as a lining wood by many designers of the post war period. One of the more common types of Maple in Modern design is Birdseye Maple, an aberration that alters the wood’s grain creating a tiny ‘swirling’ pattern (very popular with the Victorians). However there is one designer in particular who appreciated the simple beauty of Maple and that was American designer Paul McCobb. Many of McCobb’s understated pieces were perfectly suited to the wood and are prized by collectors today. Maple is considered a good, sustainable wood and is not listed as endangered.
Oak was not used very much by Modern designers, in fact, by the 1950’s oak was considered a bit of county boy’s wood. Like most of these woods there are many varieties of Oak but they all carry the same quality of a fairly coarse open grain and can range in color from very pale cream to reddish brown. Because of easy workability (with a pleasant smell when being worked) and Oak’s ability to take stain well it was often ‘disguised’ to look like another types of wood which is why so many pieces of Oak furniture made during the MCM period were stained. There was one designer in particular that enjoyed Oak in its natural state and that is Danish designer Hans Wegner, who create many pieces in natural Oak. Relatively affordable Oak is a good sustainable wood that is not CITES listed nor at risk. A guilt-free wood choice.
The sad story of a beautiful wood. With its dramatic grain figuring and rich coloring that ranges from chocolate brown to reddish purple streaked with black ‘spider webs’ Brazilian Rosewood, which had been used for centuries, experience a resurgence in post war design. The Scandinavian designers were particularly fond of the wood and when the world discovered their designs in the 1950’s and 1960’s the demand for Brazilian Rosewood skyrocketed. From musical instruments, furniture, and wall paneling there was no use not deemed inappropriate for the material. By the beginning of the 1970’s the species was facing extinction and shortly thereafter a permanent moratorium was placed on the harvesting and selling of Brazilian Rosewood. Today it is no longer commercially available and similar woods from other countries, like India, Argentina, and Africa are used instead but none can match the beauty of the expressive Brazilian Rosewood.
I don’t think the 1960’s would have happened if teak had not existed – it was the wood of the era. Golden to medium brown in color with a straight grain (although it can sometimes be interlocked) with a moderately porous surface Teak is a wood with excellent workability and is considered the gold standard for durability and decay resistance. One of the finer properties of teak is that the color will darken to a richer hue as it ages and darker examples are sometime confused for Red Oak. While not CITES listed nor considered endangered Teak is a very expensive wood, despite most new timber being grown on sustainable plantations worldwide.
One of the most popular choices for woodworkers in the United States is Walnut. This versatile, durable wood can range from a pale brown to dark chocolate brown/black in color with a reddish cast. Walnut’s grain is as varied as its color – sometimes the grain is tight and straight while other times the grain can be very interlocked and burled. In the post war period Walnut found favor with a new group of artisans who were reclaiming the American Craft tradition and reinventing it with a Modern aesthetic. Master craftsmen like George Nakashima, Phillip Lloyd Powell, and Sam Maloof all favored Walnut for their handcrafted works. Walnut was also the first choice of designer Vladimir Kagan. A beautifully lustrous wood Walnut is a sustainable choice not CITES listed nor considered endangered.
One of the most recognizable woods is the distinct Zebra Wood or Zebrano. Light brown in color with dark, almost black streaks forming the stripes which gives it its name. With a course texture and busy grain Zebra Wood is a dense wood that is not the easiest to work with, but this wood is not used for it qualities but for it unique look. While not as expensive as other exotic woods Zebra wood is still pricey and while it is not CITES listed it is considered to be at risk.
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Just remember to factor in UV light that will either darken or lighten ALL of these lovely woods.
What a lovely guide with perfect photos! Is it wrong to love cherry, even if it is old-fashioned? 😉
This is such a nice intro guide, and I really appreciate the information about each wood’s sustainability. My only issue is that, on my Android phone, none of the photos load. Still, the descriptions are really helpful!
Thanks for letting us know about the Android issue – will look into it asap!