Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 28, 2013

On The Road: New Life for Dead Wood?

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Barber poles line the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy (Jerry Garrett Photo)

In Sunday’s Automobiles section in The New York Times, I write about how the use of real wood – in a sustainable, and responsible form – is catching the eye of a number of automotive designers. I cite as my primary example the re-purposing of old “barber poles” from the canals of Venice, Italy.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the photo at the top of this post…until after the Times story went to print. When I finally came across the photo I wanted, I had to run it here. That’s the famous Rialto Bridge in the background. Why are the poles various colors? Out in front of each house along the Grand Canal the poles are painted the “family colors” of the people who owned the homes. That makes more sense if you understand that the families were like dynasties, and each had their own colors – the house’s shutters were usually painted the same colors – and their own crests.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen my Times story, or if you have used up your “free” reads for this month, I’ll re-print the original text of it (which varies slightly from the print version) here:

The interior of Pininfarina's BMW Gran Lusso Coupe, featuring rare kauri wood.

The interior of Pininfarina’s BMW Gran Lusso Coupe, featuring rare kauri wood.

On The Road: New Life for Dead Wood

VENICE, Italy

“Those poles look so old,” said my companion, pointing to the iconic striped “barber poles” lining the canals of Venice. “I wonder how long they last in that salt water?”

By coincidence, Francesco Fiordelisi, a spokesman for Pininfarina design, had an answer when we toured the company’s headquarters the next week. In the lobby was the company’s “Cambiano” concept car, which had been unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show in 2012. The Cambiano features wood interior accents crafted from the old barber poles of Venice’s canals.

“By law the poles are changed every eight years,” he said. “They are made of a special type of European oak called briccole.”

Mr. Fiordelisi explained in a later email exchange that the Cambiano featured not only briccole interior trim but also its entire floor was made of it: “The effect is surprising and evocative. It is a material that is both poor and noble.”

The interior of Pininfarina's Cambiano concept car is infused with briccole oak.

The interior of Pininfarina’s Cambiano concept car is infused with briccole oak.

Use of reclaimed woods seems to be a burgeoning trend in high-end automotive interiors; Fisker used reclaimed white oak from the depths of Lake Michigan, or charred redwood from California forest fires, in its short-lived Karma electric car. Bentley employs stumps from dead walnut trees from California. Even the latest generation of Ram trucks is offering thick chunks of wood door, dash and steering wheel trim crafted from old fence posts.

Pininfarina’s most recent concept, the BMW Gran Lusso Coupe, unveiled at the 2013 Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza, features interior accents hewn from 2,000-year-old kauri logs dredged from a swamp in New Zealand.

The wood that Pininfarina uses comes from an Italian company called Riva1920, located in Cantu near Lake Como. For 90-plus years, Riva has specialized in solid wood furniture. It is run by brothers Davide and Maurizio Riva, the third generation of a family business started by their grandfather Nico.

“Riva has been working with Pininfarina Extra for over ten years; they had the brilliant idea of recuperating the wood of these 12-meter poles,” Mr. Fiordelisi said of the Venetian barber poles. Thousands, he added, are replaced on a regular basis, which provides an ample supply of them.

The wood is marked by the salt content and the murk in the lagoon water, battered by gondolas ramming into it, and scarred by marine microorganisms that eat their way through it. The wood is milled into shapes, polished and lightly oiled. The finished product is stunning.

“The material is in its third lease of life,” Mr. Fiordelisi noted of the tree’s passing from the forest of its birth, to lagoon, to concept car. “It now reveals its unique texture and the wear and tear of passing time.”

Ram Laramie Longhorn trucks use fence post wood.

Ram Laramie Longhorn trucks use fence post wood.

The re-use of a discarded natural wood such as the Venetian briccole poles adds a welcome eco-friendly component to automotive design.

For the top-line 2014 Ram Laramie Longhorn cowboy-themed pickup, Chrysler Group designers also took inspiration from Italy’s re-claimed wood experts.

Ryan Nagode, chief designer for Ram, SRT and Fiat, said in a recent interview that he wanted a “ranch atmosphere” for the Longhorn’s interior. He chose European walnut that had been used as fence posts. The wood, besides containing a distinctive grain, is marked by the barbed wire that was wrapped around it.

“I wanted it to have the feel of the worn stock of a old shotgun or rifle,” he said. “I really wanted it to show that it’s real wood.”

Real wood planks are milled into Mulsanne door trim at Bentley.

Real wood planks are milled into Mulsanne door trim at Bentley.

“Luxury car buyers demand authentic materials,” noted Mike Sayer, a product PR specialist from Bentley Motors, in an interview at last month’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. There, Bentley had introduced new limited-edition Continental GT models featuring exotic hardwood interior trim.

Among Bentley’s more popular offerings are trim packages made from reclaimed walnut stumps, with its signature burl wood grain. In the Continental, real wood veneers are used, but in the hand-built Mulsanne, thick planks of it are carved into the shapes of door sills, instrument panel bezels, tray tables and the like.

Bentley’s bespoke (or tailor-made) department, will also try to provide any kind of wood a buyer may request – including “custom orders using trees from their own property,” Mr. Sayer said.

BMW, impressed with the way the Gran Lusso concept’s interior turned out, has announced it plans to use panels of sustainably farmed eucalyptus in its upcoming i3 electric car. Aston Martin and Lexus are among automakers offering optional trim from bamboo.

Use of real wood in auto design, of course, is not a new thing. Early automobiles had frame and body components fashioned from oak, ash, heart of pine and other hardwoods. So-called “woody wagons” and roadsters were trimmed with real wood up until the early 1950s – and today such vehicles are sought-after collectibles.

But then automakers, to save money, started to turn to wood-grain plastics – a generally hideous and unloved trim component that took a shockingly long time to fall from the favor of automakers.

Use of reclaimed and or sustainably farmed wood, meanwhile, offers not only the undeniable appeal of authentic materials, but also of enduring quality – not to mention a measure of snob appeal.

What a unique measure of pride is provided, for instance, in knowing you are driving around in a luxurious car trimmed with barber poles from Venice.

Barcarole*, per favore!

Jerry Garrett

August 28, 2013

* A song of the gondoliers

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