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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27 Comments

  • There is a part of the story missing. Real wood paneling was expensive and a sign of status. The look became unfashionable because many electronic and furniture manufacturers moved away from real wood veneer toward cheaper wood-looking laminates made of particle board cores and paper, vinyl, or resin/paper top layer combinations (think today's laminate flooring). These laminates could be processed in mass production lines and resulted in everything having a "wooden" look: Cheap TV's, Sound speakers, IKEA furniture, the inside of mobile homes, kitchen cabinets. This trend not only "cheapened" the wood look, but it also gave it a low quality reputation since many of those cheap laminates peeled off or ripped with heavy use. Thus the move away from the wood look to "expensive looking" black plastic.

  • There is a part of the story missing. Real wood paneling was expensive and a sign of status. The look became unfashionable because many electronic and furniture manufacturers moved away from real wood veneer toward cheaper wood-looking laminates made of particle board cores and paper, vinyl, or resin/paper top layer combinations (think today's laminate flooring). These laminates could be processed in mass production lines and resulted in everything having a "wooden" look: Cheap TV's, Sound speakers, IKEA furniture, the inside of mobile homes, kitchen cabinets. This trend not only "cheapened" the wood look, but it also gave it a low quality reputation since many of those cheap laminates peeled off or ripped with heavy use. Thus the move away from the wood look to "expensive looking" black plastic.

  • Indigo Mordant

    NO! A MILLION TIMES NO! And this coming from a fine furniture maker/wood whisperer!

    I will not allow another run on exotic, high-performance lumber as a veneer for consumer products. Adding wood to the finite iPhone cycle will only drain what natural resources we have left.

    We used to sheathe electronics in cabinets because wood cabinetry was the only way to house ANYTHING with decency indoors. It was also the ONLY acceptable engineering material around for that purpose. It wasn't until the postwar era littered with surplus field radios and GI memories and the boom in industry and invention did electronics become socially (and monetarily) acceptable clad in steel, or better yet, the wonder material that was (and still is) plastic.

    Wood is not a modern material, it has always been expensive, and forests are not scalable to industry. What we have regained by not making copper-clad teak boat hulls and ultimate bungalows from Cuban mahogany any longer we are losing again to the rising middle class in the Old World who still believe "rare" wood and rhino horn is a sign of culture and success. It's not only the elephants that are endangered. Child soldiers are now being directed to lay claim to the exotic timbers of Africa for this lucrative market. I don't want us to fall for that again.

    It's bad industrial design, plain and simple. And someone will get rich off it nonetheless.

  • Kraig Kooiman

    Excellent observations, and from a balanced viewpoint. Wood is renewable, plastic for the most part if recycled properly is renewable. I design products that use both wood, and printed graphics that look like wood, that get put in molds to make mostly plastic parts. The process is called In-Mold Decorating.  There is also a process for taking the image of wood and applying it to products made in something else by way of Hydrographics; or water immersion printing> Talk about cool. Go on You Tube and type in Hydrographics. Watch the videos - -pretty dool stuff. I am for protecting old growth forests, but there is a place for wood in products; albeit used sparingly and strategically.

  • TVMan4

    For those of you interested television sets from this period, you may also be interested in my music video, "TV MAN GOT NOT TUBES" on YouTube @ http://youtu.be/W-KYwJrQ3Ks which celebrates (and destroys) period sets.  Take a look.  

  • MajorDiarrhea

    The reason I recall for moving away from wood was a aesthetic movement away from hiding what the materials actually are. Towards the end of the use of wood grain, it wasn't even wood anymore, and around the 70's you finally see plastic objects which look like the plastic they are actually made from. The presentation became honest again.

    Now, we have objects made from metal, plastic, glass, and sometimes wood, and all those bits are unmistakably those materials.

  • jin choung

    there was a story recently about using a 3d printer to arrange individual nano particles to create a super-material that's like bone but stronger.  only problem is that because of how slow the process is, the material can only be made in very small quantities.

    same limitation goes for other nano materials like carbon nano tubes.

    but i'm convinced that the "manufacture" paradigm for these materials will turn out to be the wrong one.

    we already have a system that arrange not only nano-particles but indeed molecules to create macro structure.  that system is called biology.

    if we can genetically engineer biological systems to "GROW" these super-materials for us, it could very well be that we will one day harvest "TREES" that are made of carbon-nano tubes.... and when that day comes or approaches, we will go full circle to embracing not only synthetic carbon nano tube "wood", but just plain ol' trees.

    biology will be embraced again for being plenty darn futuristic.

  • Bradley Gawthrop

    As somebody who works with wood as an engineering material for a living, I'm afraid I have to let the air out of some of these romantic notions.

    Seriously - Wood is not 'alive', people. When you cut a tree down, it dies. The way it grew when it was alive means that even after it's dead, it changes shape a bit when the humidity changes. So does a kitchen sponge, that doesn't make it alive. 

    With a few exceptions, The furniture of the "Mad Men" era was mostly not made of wood, it was veneered with wood, just like IKEA furniture today (only a lot better made). It was effectively wallpapered with paper-thin sheets of wood to make it resemble wood. That's a pretty important distinction. 

    Wood stuff hasn't been made at scale by craftsmen who whisper at trees in a very very long time. Go to a Thomasville factory and see for yourself. It's treated like any other industrial material, it's just more expensive.

    The reason electronics engineers don't use wood is because it's poorly suited to the product. It's not rigid in thin cross sections, it doesn't hold tight tolerances well over humidity changes, it's expensive to procure (especially in China), and manufacturing with it is expensive, not because it requires hand craftsmanship (it doesn't) but because all wood manufacturing is subtractive. it can't be molded and cast and extruded the way glass and aluminum and plastic can be. It arrives in unpredictably sized slabs which have to be milled and milled and milled again until you reach the desired shape. 

    Also, we manufacture all this stuff in China, where they don't even have enough timber for their own domestic use. 

    Also, electronics products are engineered for short life-spans, why would you spend a lot more to use frequently scarce natural materials for disposable products? It's like making sandwich bags out of leather.

    Guys who make a lot of money selling wood products like to sell the crystal-clutching aura narrative of wood as supernatural and people who work with it as deep sensitive craftsmen, some of them undoubtedly are, but wood CAN in fact, be reduced to engineering specs (I have books full of them!), and most of the things mankind has ever made out of wood weren't art. Let's keep it at least a BIT real, folks.

  • SomeGuy

    Exactly! That Eames chair? It happened because he and the engineers he worked with reduced wood to engineering specs, and found ways to make wood do interesting things with a degree of scale. Each Eames wasn't lovingly and painstakingly hand-crafted over days or weeks. Eames (and the Herman Miller furniture that followed) was made in bulk, en masse, but with innovative designs. It doesn't take away from what Eames and others of his generation did with wood. But it wasn't some "mystical bond". It was experimentation with a form of structural material.

  • Sarah Worthington

    Yes, exactly this. Very well said. Anyone who remembers that era of veneered wood surely remembers what a pain it was. It didn't wear or age well at all. Every ding immediately looked horrible. It was a design fad, and nothing more. It was the contrast of high tech and low tech that was popular at the time- making wood do seemingly high tech shapes and styles was exciting. Of course, it wasn't doing anything except being glued in very thin layers to something else.

  • Charles Fisher

    Nice article.  Not slamming the premise that wood can be made industrial, but I'd think about this a different way.  I believe the craftsmanship that wood benefits from is a key to economic progress.  One of our major unemployment issues is that everyone seems to want cheap.  Some of us will pay for aesthetic.  Companies should recognize this and serve that market, and build out skilled crafts, which take more time from people but provide rewarding careers, serving an underserved segment.   There is an old video somewhere of a guy in the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville polishing a new Les Paul - he is practically dancing with the machine and the instrument, doing something very few people in the world can do, and providing a product which is highly prized in the market at a very high price.  We need more of that.

  • Chiafalojunk

    Frog Dick foundry makes the toilet seats
    mother of pearl and egg shell white
    kept the town growing for fifty years
    they make them out of plastic now but no one really cares
    there was a time when they made them out of wood
    momma say the new ones don't fit the way they should

    http://youtu.be/Ijzd3qRGWls

  • Jimmy FauntLeRoy!

    Trees and plants and their organic properties are lovely and mystical, and I like to see them used in appropriate and responsible ways. 

    But I think that one of the biggest reasons they were used so much back in the day was that we thought we should cloak our electrics and electronics. 

    There was a sense that the "hi-fi" and the TV and other appliances would be intrusive if not masked to blend in with the chairs and tables.

  • Steve

    It's a sub-optimal material to aluminum or glass. It's like saying "why aren't modern consumer electronics still made with vacuum tubes?" The only good plants are living plants, which we should keep in abundance in our yards and homes. Wood can stay on the tree. It's ok to have a disconnect between man-made technology and nature. It always looked goofy to put a space-age TV inside a box made of wood. The worst is car interiors with wood grain. If we want to explore outer space, we have to let go of these whims and embrace optimal design efficiency. There's a reason the Apollo missions didn't have wood grain in their interiors. When we embrace the reasons why, we will become a mature, adult society focused on the long-term benefits of efficiency over whims.

  • Bradley Gawthrop

    And a thermal insulator, and a carrier for moisture. None of these are good news in electronics.

  • Tom Granberg

    I would think that even if you couldn't for practical reason case current day technology in wood. You could very well add wood as an element, just as they do in luxury cars, strategically placed wood bits, that not only make it awesome too look at, but also feels awesome to the touch.

  • Yakbob

    Good analogy but wrong component. You wouldn't want a speaker made out of solid wood due to the cabinet resonances (few have pulled it off successfully). That's why most speakers are MDF structures with a veneered surface. Granted, there is a huge difference between a Polk clad in vinyl "wood-like"  veneer, and the hand polished, gloss veneer found on the likes of a Gemme Audio speaker.

    The classic Eames lounge chair mentioned in the article is simply a veneer over plywood...and it's still $4,000.