If you’ve been to the Singapore Zoo recently, you might have noticed a quarter of a tree trunk lying on its side, with a row of canals smoothly carved into it. But don’t attempt to look for a description for this “sculpture”. It is actually a bicycle rack designed and produced by carpentry studio Roger & Sons.
The piece looks perfectly at home amid the surrounding greenery — which is no surprise, considering that was its natural habitat. It was made from one of the approximately 100 trees that are felled daily in Singapore for various reasons, including making way for property development.
Rather than let them go to waste, a group of craftsmen in Singapore has been converting them into furniture, homeware and tchotchkes.
Roger & Sons made waves in 2019 with The Local Tree Project, generating much curiosity and awareness of the issue of sustainability and eco-consciousness. The ethical initiative salvages trees in Singapore that have been chopped down and uses every single part for various functions, the main one being furniture.
“The Local Tree Project has been really well received,” says Ryan Yeo, its operations director. “Our clients have been giving us a lot of confidence and support along the way. “These opportunities provided a platform to explore and experiment with different applications and capabilities of the material.”
The bicycle rack at the Singapore Zoo is one of many examples.
Yeo explains that they opted to keep the external curvature of the log as part of its design to reduce wastage; the slots were then chiselled and gouged by hand.
It is part of a larger commission of outdoor furniture pieces by Mandai Park Development for the zoo, all of which are made from rain trees that were felled to make way for the new Bird Park.
In fact, the team has been motivated to delve further into research and development, exploring different techniques to stabilise the wood and densify it, as well as looking for sustainable, alternative expendables used during woodworking.
Equally enthusiastic about using local wood is Suarwoodtable.com, launched by Smoke, itself a specialist in the Japanese shou sugi ban technique of charring wood to make furniture.
“It was disheartening to see them shredded to a pulp or have bigger logs exported to overseas timber merchants,” says Marcus Wang, the founder of Smoke.
“These locally grown trees have not yet reached [the end of their life] cycle and should benefit our furniture industry.
“By using them to make our pieces, this contributes to making Singapore and the world a greener place.”
As its name suggests, only suar wood, or rain tree, and mahogany are used to make the pieces. These are then crafted by hand over “countless man hours” and made unique through the incorporation of art and design elements by Wang, who’s also a master artisan.
Case in point is Suarwoodtable.com’s Jedi table, inspired, obviously, by the pop-culture phenomenon that is Star Wars. A metallic silver, lightsabre-esque spine runs through the middle of the hourglass-shaped suar wood table top that’s perched on galvanised steel legs to give it a futuristic, out-of-this-world quality.
“Tables shouldn’t just be a place to eat. We customise it into a piece of artwork,” Wang points out.
On a more organic note, Wang shares that its new Ōganikku Collection will be launched this year. Among the highlights is a bench that he rightfully describes as “flaunting art from all sides”.
From the front, the natural brown tones of the suar wood are visible, but round to the rear and the backrest has a beautiful, rustic, burnt-charcoal patina. This is made possible by borrowing the shou sugi ban expertise from Smoke to highlight the natural grain of the wood and bring out its rough and raw texture.
Not everything made from locally sourced wood is turned into pieces of furniture though.
Arthur Zaaro is a design label that uses offcuts to craft cutting boards in all shapes and sizes. These can be used both for food preparation and serving a cheese platter on, for instance.
“We work with a no-waste philosophy in mind,” says Joni Chowdhury, its designer. “Using locally sourced wood allows us to make quality products from materials that would have otherwise gone to waste.”
Its boards come with regular or natural edges, and can be customised with engravings such as the homeowner’s initials or a company logo. A highlight is the Angsana board that comes in hues of deep gold, orange, red and grey that the wood is prized for.
In fact, Arthur Zaaro even tells you the source of each batch — the latest uses wood from trees trimmed for road maintenance in the Bukit Timah neighbourhood.
Chowdhury reveals that she is always looking to innovate and make new items from the wood they get. She is currently experimenting with the use of leather and wood together to create jewellery and accessories.
Taking a more whimsical approach is woodcarving studio Everyday Canoe, started by Ng Xin Nie. She calls it a passion project that melds her “love for illustration, product design and object stories”.
There are spoons and butter knives for the kitchen, brooches and little houses that are home to dried flowers; Ng also does custom pieces for commercial brands and homeowners. Each is hand-carved from wood offcuts, yielding an adorable blend of playful and precious while being infused with character.
“I always hope that my pieces will end up being a part of someone’s daily life and bring them as much joy as possible,” says Ng.
Her creative process begins on paper — be it for a client or a self-conceived idea — where she sketches out a concept, before looking for the right wood offcut that has the best grain direction to suit the design and object’s function.
“Every finished piece turns out as a unique blend of intentional steps and happy coincidences, and that to me is what makes it even more fulfilling,” she says.
The DIY nature of what she does is something that has enthralled her since the start. “The beauty of handcrafted objects was in slowing down, intentionally considering details in each step of the process, and being open to beautiful surprises of this living material,” Ng shares.
She ruminates about her existing collection of offcuts in various sizes and how she cannot bear to discard them.
“In the past, some of the odd-shaped ones have ended up being perfect for the idea at the time. There’s always a way to make each one purposeful and to enjoy a second life.”
Back at the Roger & Sons workshop, Yeo echoes this sentiment. They were recently commissioned by fine-dining restaurant Cloudstreet to reimagine its dining experience so as to complement its expressive, ever-changing menu.
“We were approached to create three elements that set the scene for each dish: a solid angsana box, three-tiered carousel dish and skewer plinth. Each skewer plinth was [shaped] entirely by hand, forming organic silhouettes unique to one another.”
Functional yet sculptural, the pieces charm and delight.
Indeed. Whether it is the entire tree trunk or parts of it, the uses of locally sourced wood are numerous and, as demonstrated by these craftsmen, bound only by the limits of the imagination. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of A Magazine.