Between Environment and Material–Atmospheric Wood
By Purva Chawla
6 Minute Read
The space where wood–an age-old construction material–and the atmosphere or environment meet has come to represent a resistance, a battle of sorts. Weathering, fading, cracking and rot– when wood interacts with the elements, it must be prepared for every damage that the sun, wind, rain, or snow bring may inflict upon it.
For Millenia, in the construction of shelter, wood has served as armor, as a shield from the outdoors, as its primary purpose. How then can this tenuous relationship between the material and environment, building and atmosphere, be altered?
A vivid, beautiful response appears in the format of Atmospheric Wood–a surface material born from the union of three elements–wood, a blend of photosensitive powders and liquids, and natural UV light. From the reaction of these ingredients, a soft, moving landscape is imprinted on the wood–one that sometimes resembles swirling winds or clouds, and at other times looks like a bright, star-spangled night sky.
The process adopted by interior architect and designer Egle Tuleikyte, who creates Atmospheric Wood, is one that originated almost two centuries ago. Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that was first discovered by scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842, primarily as a way to replicate diagrams; following which it was used by botanist Anna Atkins to create printed images of flora. The signature cyan-blue hue of the prints produced gave them the name ‘blueprints’, and the technique became widely used by architects and engineers well into the 20th century. Blueprints served as low-cost copies of drawings which could be used by design and construction professionals, and on building sites. Till date, the technique relies on a combination of the chemicals Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide, and their exposure to natural UV light.
Contrary to the precise nature of these applications, Egle’s interpretation of the Cyanotype process gives more freedom and control to the atmospheric conditions themselves–the sun, time of day and year, humidity and more. Her process for Atmospheric Wood it seems is a back and forth between man and nature. Also relevant is the fact that Egle’s medium for her Cyanotype printing is wood, rather than paper or textile which have been traditionally used; and the output on the surface is not intended to be well-mimicked or precise geometry, but flowing, soft and unpredictable forms.
This week we speak with Egle Tuleikyte about her design, material experimentation, and the projects Atmospheric Wood is created for, from her Amsterdam-based studio. Here is that conversation:
MD: How did you arrive at creating Atmospheric Wood?
Egle: Parallel to my work as an interior architect, material research and experimentation have always been a focal point for me. During my Master's degree, where I studied interior architecture and retail design at Piet Zwart Institute at the Willem de Kooning Academy, ’research through making’ was core to the curriculum, and this has stayed with me. I was fascinated with natural minerals already, and understanding the value of natural ingredients interacting with building materials inspired me to experiment further. A few years ago, I learned about the historic printing technique Cyanotype from a friend. I liked the idea of using something historic to develop something new, so I began to experiment with the process and several different materials, which led to Atmospheric Wood being born.
MD: Where have you seen the most interest for this new surface material?
Egle: I have noticed a keen interest in Atmospheric Wood from one of a kind, custom-made design projects, those which are mostly commissioned by other creatives. Architects and designers contact me when they are inspired by colors and patterns within the material and are looking to bring a unique aesthetic and narrative to their projects.
MD: How do you see your goals, process and set of ingredients for Atmospheric Wood evolving in the future?
Egle: The project, as you know, is based on the well-known contact printing technique, commonly known as blueprinting. Reviving and interpreting traditional knowledge, Atmospheric Wood intends to bring this process to life in contemporary architecture.
On the other hand, wood is a treasured and crucial natural resource that this project aims to enrich and celebrate. Capturing and valuing sunlight–a significant aspect of architecture–is also vital here. Since the importance of location and time is critical to the process and can be traced in the final results, the surface allows users to connect with the ritual of making, as well as reconcile with their surroundings.
While the method of creating the material is low-tech in many ways, employing sunlight, in combination with digital production techniques such as CNC and laser cutting, the material can be used in efficient and innovative ways, keeping the process relevant in today’s world.
By experimenting with a centuries-old process, and manipulating it, Atmospheric Wood also invites a wider audience to reimagine other techniques for contemporary applications.
Beyond my experimentation, I also organize workshops where I teach the original blueprint technique, inviting participants to experiment with, manipulate and contribute to the further reinvention of the process. I like to see the project as a tool for communication, inviting collaborations, and encouraging people to be more responsive to their surroundings.
MD: In the context of wood, sharp sunlight can be considered a damaging or weathering agent. On the contrary, you have managed to make it a valuable ingredient in your design and production process. What have you learned about the atmosphere as one of your tools?
Egle: Although the sun is often seen as a damaging agent, it is my main power source, I see it as a way of working together with nature, and using its powers to benefit the built environment. Since this is an experimental process, initially my results were surprising and ad-hoc, of course. There is also irony in sunlight helping to create a night sky-like texture, which is a bonus.
Working with natural weather conditions and incorporating them into my design process has been tough, and full of unpredictable surprises, which I see as added value. I have discovered so many factors that have to be taken into account while working with sunlight to reach at least partial control of the process. Atmospheric conditions, time of year, time of day, humidity level, wind–all these are factors affecting the result. Even if this can be challenging at times, it is also what keeps the technique inspiring and exciting to work with.
MD: What formats do you enjoy seeing Atmospheric Wood applied in? What is next for you?
Egle: As an interior architect, my ideas tend to be for spatial objects: furniture, home decor etc. In my own work I try to stay aligned with the concept, and the narrative of the night sky, creating minimalistic designs that expose the material. I am fascinated by woodworking, so I keep learning both new and older wood treatment techniques (such as French polishing) and incorporating them into my designs. I lean towards clean geometric shapes and robust structural design.
In addition to products or installations that I create myself, I am always inspired by collaborations where Atmospheric Wood is seen or employed in new ways by other designers, and I can help bring their vision to reality. Through my practice– Studio Egle Tuleikyte – and tapping into my experience in Interior design since 2007, I am able to provide enterprising companies with the material, spatial installations and consulting.
I would love to see Atmospheric Wood take on a larger scale, such flooring. This has been a goal since the start of the project, and I am working on making this happen. I also have ideas for altering the technique and continuing experimentation, as well as plans for creating a film to document the making of Atmospheric Wood in an in-depth way.