Sclera: American Hardwood Export Council, Sir David Adjaye & Benchmark Collaboration

A collaboration first presented in 2008 by the American Hardwood Export Council and Sir David Adjaye will be part of an exciting new exhibition at the Design Museum, London. Sclera, originally commissioned for the London Design Festival, will be one of seven projects featured in David Adjaye: Making Memory, which runs 2 February to 5 May 2019.


Benchmark, widely regarded as the UK’s powerhouse of craft, was selected to collaborate on this project and was proud to take responsibility of producing Sclera.  Benchmark has become one of the country’s most technologically advanced workshops where Benchmark design and make their own furniture collection as well as commissioned projects. Combining contemporary technologies and values with traditional craftsmanship and high quality materials, Benchmark’s furniture is made to last for generations. 


British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye OBE will explore the role of monuments and memorials in the 21st century through seven of his projects. He will examine the idea of the monument and present his thinking on how architecture and form are used as storytelling devices. This exhibition shows that contemporary monuments are no longer static objects in a field – plaques, statues or neo-classical sculptures – but are dynamic and complex spaces that serve a wider purpose.

A fragment of the Sclera pavilion will be showcased in one of the exhibition rooms. The original Sclera was an elliptical 12 x 8 metre American tulipwood outdoor pavilion located near the river Thames on the Southbank Centre Square. Inspired by the human eye, it was an exploration of form and space, and was designed as a public room in the heart of the city that could be simultaneously calming and uplifting – an immersive urban monument about slowing down in order to see and understand the world better. The fragment at the Design Museum, which has been replicated following the original drawings by craftsman makers Benchmark, measures 4.5 x 3.4 metres and will invite visitors to get a glimpse at what the original experience inside the pavilion was like, and to explore the look and tactility of the tulipwood.


“Working with tulipwood timber allows to really bring out a series of positive and negative forms together. The architecture looks opaque and solid as you approach it, you think it’s a sealed room that dissolves as you enter. You realise that it is a moment where your heightened feeling of light and air are brought into the fore and the visual world is taken away from you,” says Sir David Adjaye.  “I wanted to think about the role of sacred spaces, respite spaces, quiet monuments that played a certain role in our cities and maybe have now become more formal as religious spaces. I wanted to really find a way in which we could make a space that didn’t have the connotations of religion or formal monuments but one that could just allow citizens to retreat from the bustle of everyday life. Timber, such as tulipwood, brings a sense of calm and being amongst nature when surrounded by it.”


“We are delighted that Sir David Adjaye OBE has selected Sclera as one of the monuments to be included in the design Museum’s exhibition. Sclera was our first structural experiment with American tulipwood, as well as our first collaboration with the London Design Festival. We have since gone on to push the species’ boundaries through research and various other landmark projects with LDF,” says David Venables, European Director of AHEC.


“Making the Sclera structure for the David Adjaye Show at the Design Museum gave us an opportunity to use American Tulipwood at scale and in a really beautiful installation,” says Sean Sutcliffe, founder and MD of Benchmark, the company that built the structure for the Design Museum show. “We always welcome the opportunity to make things with Tulipwood, not just because it works really well, both machining and handwork are a joy, but significantly because Tulipwood is a massively undervalued resource. It is plentiful in the North American forests, fast growing and highly sustainable as a material. It has good strength to weight properties and good stability. Quite why it has been historically so undervalued is a mystery to me, but at this point in time it is a good value hardwood.”


American tulipwood is one of the most prolific hardwood species from the U.S. hardwood forests and is unique to North America. In 2008, American tulipwood had mostly been used for indoor applications, so Adjaye’s preference for this species for outdoor use was significant. Adjaye exploited one of American tulipwood’s key characteristics: to create the pavilion’s wooden flooring of extremely long strips set along the greatest length of the ellipse. The extensive stretch of single-piece floorboards accentuates the wood’s varying natural hues, inviting visitors to walk the full length of the pavilion. These regular flooring strips contrasted with the walls and ceiling to bring out the dynamic effect of light filtering onto the wood surfaces.


Tulipwood is sourced from the Eastern United States, where the hardwood forest area is expanding at a rate of one football pitch every minute, and already exceeds 110 million hectares, equivalent to the combined area of France and Spain. This makes the material both sustainable and environmentally friendly, especially as it is one of the most abundant American hardwoods – accounting for 7.7% of the total standing volume in U.S. hardwood forests. Every year, even after harvest, the volume of tulipwood in the U.S. forest grows by 19million m3, the equivalent of over 19 Olympic swimming pools per day.

Sclera is one of several collaborative projects between AHEC and Benchmark. Other projects include The Wish List for London Design Festival, the Rotunda Serotina for Wallpaper* Handmade and Too Good to Waste for Interni’s exhibition at Milan Design week.

About Alys Bryan

Alys' experience as a furniture designer, along with her in-depth marketing knowledge, makes her uniquely placed to work with the BCFA as the Editor of Design Insider and run her marketing business, Method Communications.
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