Elm, wellness and play

On the top floor of the museum, floating among the many chairs on display in the V&A’s furniture gallery, there is a swing.

A gallery containing furniture made of wood. The swing hangs from a branch.
Swing in Elm (2022) in the Dr. Susan R Weber Gallery. Photo by Danilo Marques dos Reis

The swing has a seat made of elm wood and is suspended by a thick, unbleached cotton rope that frames it and offers hand support. The backrest is made of many threads of British wool running vertically from small incisions along the natural contour of the seat, and attached to a topper made of ash. Its natural, sensorial materials and enveloping shape suggest to me a cocoon. Swing in Elm (2022) was made by Hannah-Lily Lanyon as their response to Field Notes. This was a summer school that took place in 2022, organised by the V&A in collaboration with the Sylva Foundation, for practitioners wanting to work with wood and other sustainable, locally sourced materials.

Hannah-Lily is an artist, fabricator, and playworker with a community-led approach to developing environments for play and wellbeing. Rather than acting as a sole creator, however, their creative process has always involved co-creation and collaboration. For an earlier project titled Play Up (2018 – 2019), which they co-created with other volunteers in Athens, a climbing frame was built in an inner-city squat to be used by the young, majority Kurdish people living there.

A row of decorated cupboards against and external wall.
Play Up (2019). Photo by Hannah-Lily Lanyon

This is more than a playful structure for displaced children to enjoy, however. Play Up is a framework for welcoming and connecting people, in a landscape where the politics of migration finds itself leaning more and more towards the right. Hannah-Lily created a book, We Built a Playground (2019), to record the second iteration of Play Up. Here again, play is conveyed in form and content. Their handling of paint references finger painting, and the resulting images inspire readers to have fun and create.

Two pages from an illustrated book, with drawings of a hand and a swing
Pages 2 (left) and 17 from We Built a Playground (2019)

Curiously, the book’s narrator fluctuates between being a child and being an adult. To me, this captures the horizontal relational dynamics between adults and children in the making of Play Up. More lyrically, however, it speaks of our yearning to reconnect with our younger selves.

The swing on display at the V&A tackles similar themes. Hannah-Lily designed and made the swing with adults in mind, and it forms part of their more recent exploration into the role of play in treatment for adults with PTSD. They explained that Swing in Elm is meant to be placed in a clinical context, such as the waiting room of a mental health clinic or hospital: ‘[the swing] offers more opportunities for sensory engagement and movement than a chair, and could help patients nurture curiosity and playfulness in a safe environment’.

In addition to this, the swing conjures a longing for the natural world. It was built using only locally sourced, biodegradable, natural materials and Hannah-Lily explained that ‘clinical spaces and playgrounds generally share the same material for their construction: plastic. I am struck by how the use of plastic, typically generated from crude oil, is largely culpable for the climate crisis and is therefore a morbid material to use for playful and therapeutic objects. In response to this I sought alternative materials to work with that reproduced the ethos of care we seek while healing’. From this, the choice of elm wood for the seat of the swing embodies the care that drives Hannah-Lily’s practice. Dutch Elm Disease was introduced to Britain in the 1920s, and spread quickly among the elm tree population. By 1980 most mature English elm had died. Hannah-Lily felt that using elm from a previously felled tree was the right decision: ‘breathing second life into a felled tree from a dying species felt apt when considering trauma rehabilitation.’

This swing is a place for inspiration and for feeling cared for, through a connection with nature. Hopefully, you will experience this when looking at Swing in Elm and the other projects that comprise Field Notes (on show until October 2023).

Field Notes is the second iteration of Make Good: Rethinking Material Futures – a V&A public project investigating the use of natural, renewable materials in design and architecture. It invites practitioners from different fields to share research, knowledge and skills and considers the responsibilities of designers and consumers toward the natural world.

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