Co.Design

Why Aren't Our Gadgets Still Covered In Wood?

In the Mad Men era, wood-encased electronics were all the rage. Why does the material now seem to clash with our vision of the future?

The world of Mad Men is made up of wood of every conceivable grain and color. The show’s sumptuous design palette has been responsible for popularizing midcentury design again, showing everyday objects and funiture that were popular in the 1960s not as the cracked and fading relics of our grandparents’ basements but as objects that define the characters who inhabit Matt Weiner’s vivid, romantic world.

But what about the design of 1960s technology? The Sylvania television set veneered in wenge? The record console cabineted in oiled walnut? The vintage hi-fi, pulsing its needles in a Santos Palisander shell?

These everyday gadgets remain dead to most of us, and even in Mad Men, they look creaky and obsolete. We might buy a replica of an Eames lounge chair or a teak bar cart of our own these days, but few of us want wood housings for our electronics anymore. Yet up until about 30 years ago, almost all gadgets were still cased in wood. Where are our teak-shelled laptops, our wenge-veneered HDTVs, our zebrawood smartphones? Why did wood in gadgets die?

There are two reasons. One is practical; the other spiritual, about the way we look at what technology represents to the future. Let’s start with the practical.

"I know why electronics companies stopped using wood," says Dave Laituri, founder of Vers Audio, a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in audio equipment made out of wood. "It’s too hard to work with. Wood is alive."

It’s a simple observation, but an important one. Imbued into the grain of a piece of wood is the unique identity of the tree that grew it. It is the flesh of a living thing, and just as surgery is a strange fit for the assembly line, so is woodworking: It requires craftsmanship.

"Looking over a piece of wood, there’s just so much you need to be able to discern to work with it," agrees John Tolman, the founder of Monolith, an Austin-based producer of wood veneers and back plates for iPhones. "It takes a lot of judgment to look at a piece of wood and know if it will warp, or splinter, or pop off. It expands and it contracts and it splits. You can’t just nail it down to specific engineering specs, like you can with a piece of plastic. It’s art."

Which is why, as an engineering material used by an electronics industry ruled by global economies of scale, wood has been left behind.

For one thing, it’s time consuming. "When we started Vers, we went to visit a violin factory and audited their process, bending and carving wood to make the perfect sound," Laituri recalls. "But it always takes seven days to make an artisan violin, which is why we’re proud that our speakers take just as long. You can’t shave even an hour off of that if you want the same quality and sound."

It’s also expensive. "To injection mold a piece out of plastic, you can make it in just a minute, and it will probably only cost a couple of bucks," Laituri continues. "A wood piece that does the same thing? It’ll cost at least five times as much. Probably more."

All of this makes wood less obviously suitable for the assembly line on which most electronics are produced. But there are cultural factors at play, too.

"Wood people are weird," laughs Laituri, fondly. "They’re old-school craftsmen, working with their hands to do everything and whispering to trees." So when you try to get them talking to engineers—people who believe that every material is reducible to a formula, every object to a schematic—on a single project, they aren’t speaking the same language.

Wood people speak the language of wood. "Wood works, acts, and behaves in a certain way. It’s not a mindset: It’s the very characteristic of the material itself," Laituri asserts.

So. Wood people are weird. Wood is time consuming to work with. And it’s expensive. That’s why electronics companies desperate to maximize margins stopped using wood in their gadgets.

Case closed? Not quite.

Monolith, which already sells replacement parts for gadgets made out of wood, thinks wood could come back if a company big enough had the corporate will to do it.

"People try to talk up woodmaking and furniture making as if it’s a mystical talent," Tolman argues. "There’s some truth to that, but it’s not as unattainable as some people make it out to be. If a big company was willing to put the resources into making the mass manufacturing of wood gadgets possible again, it would be attainable."

But Apple is not going to suddenly decide to make an iPhone out of bird’s-eye maple or etimoe. Nor is any other big manufacturer going to invest in wood this way. Unlike glass and aluminum, wood is not a material that we, as consumers, believe the future can be constructed from. Gadget companies would have us believe that technology is the essence of the future. How can the future be made of wood?

This is the spiritual disconnect of using wood in technology. For most of us today, veneering a laptop or paneling a tablet in wood is as absurd as trying to build a spaceship out of planks. But is it really? Why should wood be such an absurd material to build the future out of?

It’s certainly environmentally viable. For every one tree a company like Vers Audio uses to build their speakers, they plant a hundred in partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation, and wood that doesn’t find its way into a finished product can be turned into particle board.

Once more, it comes down to wood’s sum and substance. Wood is alive. It becomes old. It has history and character. These are qualities our vision of the future cannot accommodate. The future must always be impossibly bright and shiny and just beyond the farthest stretch of our fingertips. Wood? Its essence is in being touched, a fact that Monolith capitalizes upon.

"If wood gets scratched or stained, it’s part of its character. Wood gets worn just by the oils in your hands. If wood scuffs or dings, it gains a story," Tolman argues. "That’s both part of wood’s charm, and why many people don’t like it, especially in electronics. They don’t want to admit their gadgets will one day be antiques." They want it to be futuristic forever.

Despite this, there are still aficionados who crave wood in their laptops, their smartphones, their speakers, and their televisions. Wood cases and backs for smartphones and laptops are fairly popular; ASUS sells an entire series of laptops veneered in bamboo. Wood remains a popular material in audio, not just for the material’s acoustic properties but also for its aesthetic. The blending of wood with technology hasn’t gone away; it’s just become niche.

This is a niche that companies like Vers Audio and Monolith are thriving in. "People buy Vers Audio speakers because wood is this traditional, old, visceral material, and for some of us, there’s something satisfying about seeing it melded with these new, weird, anomalous materials like metal and plastic," Laituri explains.

"Wood has a history. Every piece is different, every piece was once alive. There is an emotional impact there that is profound. There’s nothing that you can do with plastic to make it an emotional thing; but wood helps us connect to our devices."

If using wood in gadgets represents a future, then, it’s almost a biomechanical one, in which living, organic material intermeshes with inanimate metal and bright glass. It’s a vision of technology and what technology represents that takes for granted that we can be organically connected to our gadgets, and that through design the future can be intertwined with the past.

Which brings us back 40 years to Don Draper, drinking in his Upper East Side apartment, surrounded by cutting-edge gadgets ensconced in wood. It’s easy to see this as the past, but it could just as easily be the future. Who says every atom that makes up the future of technology must be deader than ourselves? Who says the future can’t have history?

[IMAGE: Reel to Reel, James Vaughn via Flickr]

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