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Why tech designers are turning to natural materials

The case for wood

Tech products tend to look functional at best. But, as Kassia St Clair discovers, there are manufacturers using natural materials to make them look beautiful

Tech products tend to look functional at best. But, as Kassia St Clair discovers, there are manufacturers using natural materials to make them look beautiful

Kassia St Clair | August/September 2016

Castelnaudary, a small town near Toulouse in France in the heart of cassoulet country, seems an unlikely spot for a tech company. But for Julien Salanave and Franck Fontana, co-founders of Orée, it had particular appeal. The area had been known for its woodwork and leatherwork for 200 years, but recently has suffered high unemployment. Salanave and Fontana put some of these craftsmen back in business, producing Orée’s range of sleek, minimal high-tech products made with wood, leather, copper and marble.

In 2012 ABI Research valued the market for smartphone accessories at $20 billion and predicted that it would grow to $38 billion by 2017; in 2015 they announced revenues for mobile accessories had reached $81 billion. Most products, though, are identikit, functional and plastic, leaving a gap in the market for companies that wanted to cater to design-conscious individualists.

Orée focuses on smart tech accessories: a Bluetooth keyboard in silky-blonde maple wood or darker walnut; a squat, cylindrical smartphone induction charger in wood and marble called the Pebble; and, most recently, a notepad and pen set that digitally transfer your scribblings onto an app so they can be shared. Native Union, a Hong Kong-based company founded in 2009, and Wood’d, an Italian company founded in 2012, specialise in cases and chargers. What all three have in common is a luxurious, hand-crafted aesthetic.

Material pleasures

Orée’s cherrywood keyboard

MAIN IMAGE At the workbench in Castelnaudary

BELOW Native Union’s marble phone case

Natural materials are tactile and evoke a slower, more romantic view of production than mass-produced plastic. They are also individual – each piece has a different grain or patina. This is vital at the premium end of the market, where people own identical products as status symbols but nevertheless want to differentiate themselves. Orée’s keyboards, each carved from a single piece of wood, can be engraved with personal messages. Customers can choose between different woods, keyboard layouts, even typefaces on the keys should they wish to take their personalisation to ever more molecular levels.

These companies strive to place their products within wider design trends. Native Union’s first product, Clic – a wooden case with a slice of bright coloured plastic inlaid into its surface – was inspired by tables seen at London Design Week in 2012. A year later Maison & Objet, a Parisian design fair, was brimming with marble, so Native Union began prototyping cases and charging docks using slivers of the stuff.

 

But using natural materials presents near Sisyphean technical challenges. Each type of metal, wood and stone has its own foibles, and because tech products like keyboards and phones are expensive and in constant use, customers are picky. Marble cases, for example, need to be light and shatter proof, and not interfere with the phone signal: a tall order for a notoriously dense limestone that chips easily. When Native Union first approached stonemasons with the project, they were met with extreme scepticism. The solution they eventually hit upon involved slicing the marble incredibly finely, then reinforcing it with a layer of fibreglass. Similarly, when Orée developed their Pebble wireless charger, they found that not all kinds of wood permit induction. They had to hollow out the marble and wood casings to very precise thicknesses and develop varnishes that created an interface between the technology and the material encasing it. Stefano Aschieri, who co-founded Wood’d with his brother Andrea, estimates that no more than 30% of products make it from drawing board to production, even though the brothers are third-generation woodworkers, know their raw material intimately and have ready access to skilled labour.

A fundamental challenge faced by all three companies is the tendency of wood to expand and contract depending on the humidity. This was a particular issue for Native Wood, given their base in Hong Kong. To prevent warping, their wood is baked, then sliced and coated in a specially developed varnish. The results are a hit with customers – they sell around 9,000 Clic cases each month and 2,000-3,000 marble ones – but it has been a steep learning curve. “For us it’s a nightmare,” sighs Fabien Naudry, Native Union’s head of design. “It would be so much easier to do it in plastic.”

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