From Lagom #3

Artist Spotlight: Hilla Shamia

Tel Aviv-based artist Hilla Shamia’s unique furniture collection is one of contrasts: combining wood and aluminium, she preserves the natural imperfections of the wood and the industrial precision of the aluminium. Here she explains the process and thought behind her work.

Words Samantha Stocks

Photographs courtesy of Hilla Shamia

How did you start out in furniture design? Was crafting and creating something that always came naturally to you?

My father is an architect and my mother is a ceramic artist, so the love for design and aesthetics was always present at home. I was mesmerised by specific objects, and decided to study industrial design at the Holon Institute of Technology in Israel. During my time studying there, I realised that my true love was my preoccupation with materials and attempting to take them to their limits.

The Wood Casting™ technology was my final project for my studies. I decided to manifest my research on the combination of wood and aluminium in a furniture collection, as I wanted this complex technology to be accessible for all and to function in an unmediated way, as furniture does.

Why choose these two very different materials?

I’m interested in contrasting materials. Aluminium is very cold and industrial, as opposed to the organic wood, and its silver-blue colour contradicts the warm and earthy colours of wood. I also chose the aluminium because of its weight, for both technical and aesthetic reasons. Tree trunks are very heavy, so I was looking for a material that could support this weight, without adding a lot of weight of its own. The light feel of aluminium against the heavy wood creates a perfect contrast.

I’m very interested in exploring the connection between two different materials, without any mediating factor. While working on the Wood Casting™ for my final project, I was interested in the way different materials affect one another through various manipulations. One of the manipulations I experimented with was heat, which, in the case of the Wood Casting™, was a one-sided correspondence and came only from the aluminium. During this encounter, I was most intrigued by the formation of a third material: coal. It functioned as a line drawn in the meeting point between the two materials, delineating and separating them. It revealed the evidence of the production process, as well as the secret of creative thought.

What is your production process for the Wood Casting™ furniture?

First I try to define what the concept is behind the specific piece. Is it designated to be positioned next to some other pieces, or to stand alone? Is it to be made out of a whole, long tree trunk? Or a short one, filled with cracks? This information helps me to choose the wood type and the cutting fashion. In the case of producing two pieces from two halves of one trunk, for example, it’s important to be careful not to damage any of the halves in order to maintain the feel of a complete tree. The cutting of the lumber at the sawmill is the most magical stage for me. You can never know what drawing will be revealed inside the trunk, what treasures it holds, and what stories it tells. The bark doesn’t reveal any clues about what’s inside, and even if you think you know the tree type, it will surprise you each time. Afterwards I place the trunk as if it was a prosthesis inside a mould, and the hot aluminium is poured straight onto the wood. This flows into all its cracks, hardens, and the two materials become one. In this process all the senses are involved — the noises of the cracking wood, the smell of the burning, the sight of the white smoke — all of which are eventually replaced by a silence: a sign that the metal is hardening, marking the end of the process.

The opening of the mould is also a very interesting stage. The transition from a single tree trunk into a solid standing piece of furniture, and the transformation of liquid metal into four supporting strong legs, surprises me every time. After some cleaning, the wood is covered with a subtle layer of lacquer, in order to seal the coal and to protect the wood as much as possible, as I always try to keep the natural look of the wood.

Why is it important to you to preserve the natural appearance and form of the wood, keeping some of its original shape and textures, instead of sanding it down as many furniture makers seem to do?

When I work with materials, I always try to grant them the respect they deserve, and fully express each material’s natural qualities. I choose to use an almost complete tree trunk, preserving its natural form, while delimiting it in clear borders. In this way, the overall square shape gives it a sense of artificiality, but inside this, the memory of the original material is stored. I love the natural cracks and fissures of the wood, and I’m fascinated with the idea of the ‘imperfect object’. The ‘bruises’ and ‘scars’ in the wood tell the log’s story and history, and when the aluminium seeps into these imperfections, the past of the tree is combined with the present of the melted aluminium, and the future of the final object.

How do you go about sourcing the wood that you use?

I usually use only local woods, such as cypress, eucalyptus, olive, Indian rosewood, carob, oak, cape lilac, and others. We hand-pick wood according to customers’ requests and of course based on availability. Each type reacts differently to the process: logs with more cracks enable the aluminium to seep in and appear at the surface.

Although I try to find logs suitable for my clients’ specifications, it’s very difficult to control the amount of aluminium that seeps into the cracks. It’s funny — I’ve been collecting tree trunks for five years now; you can say that I have my own private collection of tree trunks! If I see one lying around, I take it, and later on I try to use it in my work.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

Currently I’m trying to insert new materials into the Wood Casting™ collection, such as brass. The combination of the golden colour with the brown wood is breathtaking. I’m also trying to adjust the technology to produce larger dining tables, as I’m repeatedly asked about these by clients. I recently developed a series of wall clocks, and soon a series of light fittings will be released. As I mentioned, I’m fascinated by basic and natural materials, and looking for new adventures and things to research. It’s been a long time now that I’ve been planning to work with glass, so this will be my next big project — I’m curious to see what will come of it.