Fun in the forest

Talking about the environment is serious proposition – often accompanied by stern faces, suits, and graphs. In From the Forest, a new display in the V&A’s Dr. Susan Weber Galleries of Furniture, we investigate the timely topic of sustainable forestry and the use of wood as a material for making – but have tried to animate it with the light-hearted playfulness that many of the pieces on show evoke. From the Forest’s playfulness is perhaps epitomised in a piece entitled Forest Crayons (2021) by Playfool. Playfool is a design studio founded by Dan and Saki Coppen that, in their own words, ‘takes a play-based approach to design and engineering to produce award-winning products, experiences and entertainment that spark imagination and foster creativity’. In the case of Forest Crayons, for instance, Dan and Saki wanted to explore the untapped potential of Japan’s forests and develop a new way to play with wood.

Two-thirds of Japan is covered in afforested land. These forests were planted after the end of the second world war but, due to the high level of management that they require and a demand for cheaper imported timber, they have fallen into neglect. Without proper management, they have come to contribute to an increase in landslides and other environmental problems. Playfool wanted to bring this issue to people’s attention – so Dan and Saki started experimenting with locally sourced wood, to better understand the capacities of the material. They integrated wood into electronic circuits, boiled it, froze it, and even ate it—they note that the latter was not very pleasant, unfortunately.

It wasn’t until they started grinding Cedar wood into a fine powder that they had a breakthrough. They realised that it was possible to extract vibrant pigments from wood, and that by mixing the powdered pigments with wax they could make one of the most accessible and universal playthings: a crayon.

Playfool’s experimentation and alchemy are conveyed in the way that the Forest Crayons are displayed in the museum. Here, we can see each step in the transformation of raw wood into crayons.

A display case showing different pieces of wood, and the crayons made from them.
Installation view of Playfool’s Forest Crayons (2021). Photo by Danilo Marques dos Reis.

At the top we see the irregular, organic piece of raw wood. Next, the little mounds of fine powder show the ground-down wood. This is followed by the neatly triangular crayon, achieved by mixing the powdered wood with rice wax. Lastly, the viewer can see a tantalising scribble made with the respective crayons.

Fungus-stained wood and crayon. Photo by Kusk.

By looking at all the different elements laid out in such a way, we see not only the intriguing spectrum of colours that can be extracted from wood, but we are also invited to appreciate the beauty of the intricate organic patterns that flow through the figure of each piece of wood – an invitation to consider how unique each tree is. Each type of wood is identified in a label below the crayon scribble. Interestingly, here the name of the varied species of wood is accompanied by the locations the trees grow. This is a reminder that we are looking at species that are all native to Japan. Their journey to the UK was yet another (quite large) step in the process of putting together this exhibit. All the different elements displayed were shipped to the V&A in a surprisingly small box.

A box sitting on a table in an office
Forest Crayons shipping box. Photo by Danilo Marques dos Reis.

Because they were sent to us fresh from Japan’s sawmills, the raw pieces of wood had to be heat-treated to avoid any possible insect infestation in the museum. This involved putting the wood inside a large, heated chamber (not unlike a sauna room) for 24 hours. Luckily, we remembered to set the crayons aside before the heat treatment, or they would have ended up as a small waxy puddle! Still playable, nonetheless.

The Forest Crayons bring a lot of joy to the gallery. They engage with a serious and timely topic through an engaging and innovative approach. This promotes fun connections between people and the natural world, while also raising awareness in a clear and relatable way. When the display launched earlier this year, the Forest Crayons only existed as a prototype. As I was writing this, however, I received an email from Playfool with the amazing news that the crayons are currently being manufactured in Japan and will be available in selected shops there soon. Sign up to the Forest Crayons mail list if you’d like to receive future news about the project.

A line of logs from different trees
Raw pieces of Japanese wood and their varied colours and textures. Photo by Playfool.

From the Forest forms part of Make Good: Rethinking Material Futures—a new V&A initiative supported by John Makepeace, OBE, that looks at the use of natural, renewable materials and sustainability in design and architecture.

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