Milan Showstopper: American Maple Shines at Design Week!

American Hardwood leads Salone del Mobile with 'material-first' approach to design.

Tue 23 Apr 24


‘American maple’ was on trend at this year’s Milan Design Week, which ran from April 16 to 21, with the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) collaborating with Jan Hendzel Studio to commission two designers to create works for the Salone del Mobile – the world’s largest furniture fair.

And why wouldn’t it be? American maple—a close cousin of European maple and sycamore—is perhaps best known as the primary ingredient in Maple Syrup. It is nonetheless a highly desirable and underused hardwood, characterised by a delicate colour and a beautifully fine grain.

Using maple as a springboard, Giles Tettey Nartey and Parti, a studio founded by Eleanor Hill and Tom Leahy, both developed different bodies of works, each using the same sustainable hardwoods as a starting point.

According to Jan Hendzel, principal of the Jan Hendzel Studio, the exercise is about “balancing traditional joinery methods with pushing the capabilities of digital machining.” 

“In these projects, we celebrate the use of American maple, a beautiful creamy white, tough, dense-grained timber with an almost illustrative grain patterning,” Mr Hendzel said, who makes expressive timber furniture from a workshop in London, adding that “the challenge for us is in mastering how far we can push it.” 

Introducing Communion and Pirouette, two extraordinary works crafted by Jan Hendzel Studio in American maple – a valuable yet underused hardwood – showing at the Triennale during Milan Design Week 2024 – footage courtesy of @americanhardwood.

Ultimately, this makes maple an ideal sustainable hardwood for both commissions—Giles Tettey Nartey designed a food-prep table inspired by Ghanaian culture, while Parti’s director, Eleanor Hill, used a three-axis CNC machine to sculpt furniture inspired by the fold and flow of fabric. 

For Rocio Perez-Inigo, the AHEC’s Director of Communications, the collaborations aim to bridge the gap between the design industry and the natural regeneration of forests that supply American hardwoods worldwide. And with that, call for a sustainable material-first design approach, led by resource availablity rather than design trends. 

“The relentless pursuit of ever-changing trends has led to overexploitation of certain wood species, disregarding the rich diversity of natural resources available,” Ms Perez-Inigo said. “Moreover, trends prioritising flawless, uniform appearances incentivise practices that may compromise the integrity and resilience of forests and ecosystems.” 

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American Maple was the start of the show at Milan Design Week. Click here to learn more about the specialty hardwood and how it can be used in future projects. (Photo Credit: American Hardwood Export Council)

For more than 20 years, the AHEC has cultivated fruitful collaborations with architects and designers, according to David Venables, AHEC’s European Director, adding that “we take immense joy in collaborating with creatives due to the unique opportunities it offers us as an organisation representing both an industry and a precious natural resource.” 

Otherwise known as Acer rubrum and Acer saccharum, American Maple is a cold-climate species sourced from the northern states of the US. It reaches heights of 23–27 metres and has a trunk diameter of 75cm. Predominantly creamy white, it is a hard-wearing timber that can be machined and polished to a very smooth finish, making it a favourite for sports floors—including basketball courts—worldwide.

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For more than 20 years, the American Hardwood Export Council has been working with the world’s leading architects and designers to draw attention to the importance of a ‘material-first’ design approach. (Photo Credit: American Hardwood Export Council)

“To truly embrace sustainability, the industry must shift its paradigm towards a more holistic understanding of materials,” according to an AHEC representative who spoke to Wood Central following another successful Milan Design Week. “And this begins with integrating material choice into the initial stages of the design process.”

“But it also means prioritising responsibly sourced and renewable natural materials” and “investing time and effort in learning and understanding their unique characteristics and potential.”

“By adopting this mindset and approach, we can foster a more sustainable design ethos that respects and preserves the natural world while meeting the needs of contemporary design aesthetics.”

Discover Communion by Giles Tettey Nartey

Making his Milan debut, the British-Ghanaian designer Giles Tettey Nartey explored the culture, culinary tradition, and rituals of life in Ghana.  

Made from American maple, known for being dense and durable, Communion is a table designed to make fufu—a West African staple food made by pounding cassava into dough. According to Mr Nartey, the table reimagines the practice as a communal performance where everyone comes together in the shared act of making food.

Giles Tettey Nartey who is in the process of creating ‘Communion’ for his debut at Salone del Mobile – the world’s largest furniture fair. (Photo Credit: American Hardwood Export Council)

Whilst the outer table is equipped with dents, grooves, bowls, and bumps, enhancing the preparation and cooking process, the central table serves food and facilitates communal dining. 

The design includes mortars (woduro) and pestles (woma) for grinding cassava, along with seating inspired by traditional Ashanti stools and typical kitchen stools found in Ghana.  

According to Mr Nartley, Communion aims to elevate the act of pounding cassava to a higher level of performance. One person pounds and another turns the mixture in an almost choreographed fusion of movement and sound akin to dance. 

Speaking about the design, Mr Nartey said:

Communion focuses on the rituals that bring to life the objects in our homes, presenting them not just as lifeless items filling our spaces but as artefacts rich with emotional and spiritual meaning, animated through our daily routines. For me, it’s also a question of functionality and whose functionality we admire and give space to. The piece celebrates a practice that is so local to West Africa presented in a new way which gives emphasis to the ‘communal’ by allowing multiple people to participate in the process of making fufu. The everyday local ritual is therefore transformed into performance, exposing the beauty I have always seen in everyday Ghanaian life.” 

Discover Pirouette by Parti

Inspired by the fluid movement of fabric and the childlike joy of spinning around, Parti’s Pirouette collection is a range of timber furniture that explores complex geometric forms. 

Translating the folds and creases of twisting and billowing fabric into the solid forms of seats and tables is a demanding and complicated process, usually associated with sculpture and the highest levels of craftsmanship.

Elenor Hill, director of Parti, who used CNC machining to create Pirouette, a range of timber furniture sculpted into different forms. (Photo Credit: American Hardwood Export Council)

Collaborating with Jan Hendzel Studio, Parti embarked on a journey of experimentation, pushing the boundaries of a three-axis CNC machine to sculpt the wood and develop the furniture. 

According to Elenor Hill, director of Parti:

Hand-sculpting fabric out of heavy materials is something we’ve seen throughout history. At Parti, however, we are interested in utilising new technologies and processes and pushing them to the limit. As a result, the making process is integral to the design, informing its boundaries. The final design is achieved through a process of negotiation between the expression of the piece and the process of making it. Although it would be easier to design a one-off, hand-crafted object, we wanted to push the limits of new technology to create a feasibly manufactured product.”  

Parti used new technologies and processes to create hand-crafted furniture from American Maple. (Photo Credit: American Hardwood Export Council).

Maple’s density makes it especially suited to creating sculptural shapes through CNC cutting. These forms are simplified because the CNC machine cuts only one side of the wood. Each piece is constructed from a series of complex shapes connected together, with top and bottom elements acting as ‘keys’ to lock everything together and sustain the furniture’s structure.  

Running diagonally across the twisting timber ‘skirt’, the wood’s silky grain contributes to a sense of fluidity and motion within the pieces, which are tactile and dynamic, reminiscent of dancers frozen in the moment. 

Despite Pirouette’s intricate appearance, meticulous attention to detail ensures that the manufacturing process remains streamlined and efficient, allowing for a seamless blend of complexity and simplicity in each piece. 

About the American Hardwood Export Council

This story has been developed in collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council, which has been the global face of the US timber industry for more than three decades, championing the performance, sustainability, and aesthetic potential of American Hardwoods across the world.

As the leading international hardwood trade association for North America, AHEC operates a non-profit programme representing thousands of businesses engaged in the production and export of timber, ranging from small family-run sawmills to major flooring manufacturers. For more information about the American Hardwood species, visit the AHEC’s dedicated website.


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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