Can an exhibition display be built sustainably? Temporary exhibitions ought to be innovative and exciting – but, as a result, bespoke displays often end up being single-purpose in their design and resource-intensive in their manufacture. The From the Forest display – part of the ten-year Make Good: Rethinking Material Futures project, which explores themes of sustainable design – provided a perfect opportunity to challenge these assumptions. Our ambition was to design a display that itself embodied the ethos of the objects it shared: sustainability, ethical sourcing, and long-term reusability.
At the V&A Design Studio, we started by looking at modular components that could be reconfigured and reused over the ten years of Make Good. We established that we needed components that fell under two categories: screens and plinths. Screens would be used to hold information panels as well as other objects, such as posters or, in this year’s display, birdboxes. Plinths were designed to be modular: the tabletops could be reused or, if need be, replaced, while their supports could be rearranged in any configuration.
To identify a material for building the display, and to stay in keeping with the first year’s theme, we researched forests and their management. In the end we settled on a display that makes use of coppiced wood; coppicing is a method of woodland management in which young tree stems are repeatedly cut down at their base, and allowed to regenerate, thus producing a sustainable supply of timber. Due to its thin diameter and uneven shape, coppiced wood is rarely used for furniture – but the display uses clusters of coppiced stems of hazel and ash, grown in Essex and Bedfordshire, within 50 miles of the V&A. Clusters of stems form the plinths that support the objects. Our modular system, however, comprises a number of elements, including supports and screens that are versatile enough to be reconfigured to display different content in future years, and which could have a future life as stand-alone pieces of home furniture.
The process of designing and making the display was the result of a three-way collaboration between coppice worker Guy Lambourne, maker Alex Worsfold, and the V&A Design Studio. The aesthetic is intentionally organic and irregular rather than formal, embracing what might otherwise be considered timber defects: knots, splits and shakes. This aesthetic playfully responds to the title of From The Forest. And – importantly – the furniture conservation team very obligingly ensured there was no risk from uninvited guests, by arranging for the wood to be dried in a controlled environment, removing any insects or other parasites.
Conceiving the design for the Make Good display was a journey – exploring aspects of local sourcing, managed forestry, renewable material, and design for re-use. As such our ambition is to contribute to the museum’s goals of eliminating waste, reducing carbon emissions, and improving the sustainability of temporary displays; while, at the same time, contributing to the development of a local industry of sustainable furniture making. The design of Make Good is part of a bigger discussion around sustainable exhibition design, of finding ways to decrease the carbon footprint of their construction, while adding value through their design and making.