Wood That Proudly Wears the Marks of Previous Use

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VENICE -- "Those poles look so old," my companion said, pointing to the striped "barber poles" lining the canals. "I wonder how long they last in that salt water?"

By coincidence, the question was answered a few days later on a visit to the Pininfarina design studio in Cambiano, near Turin, where a concept car also called the Cambiano was on display. "By law, the poles are changed every eight years," said Francesco Fiordelisi, a Pininfarina spokesman. "They are made of a special type of European oak called briccole."

The Cambiano, which made its debut at the Geneva auto show in 2012, not only features interior trim of briccole, but its entire floor is covered with it.

"The effect is surprising and evocative," Mr. Fiordelisi wrote later in an e-mail. "It is a material that is both poor and noble."

Reclaimed woods are taking center stage in high-end automotive interiors; the short-lived Fisker Karma, a high-end plug-in hybrid, offered trim of either white oak reclaimed from logs retrieved from the depths of Lake Michigan or charred redwood from California forest fires. Bentley repurposes slabs cut from stumps of walnut trees. Even the latest-generation Ram trucks has joined the trend, offering thick chunks of door, dashboard and steering wheel trim crafted from old fence posts.

Pininfarina's most recent concept car, the BMW Gran Lusso Coupe, has accents crafted from 2,000-year-old kauri logs dredged from a New Zealand swamp.

Pininfarina gets its wood from Riva 1920, a company in Cantù, Italy, near Lake Como, that has specialized in solid wood furniture for more than 90 years. (Founded by Nico Via, the company is now run by grandsons Davide and Maurizio.)

Mr. Fiordelisi said that Pininfarina had been working for 10 years with Riva 1920 on industrial designs. "They had the brilliant idea of recuperating the wood of these 12-meter poles," he said, adding that thousands of the Venetian barber poles are replaced on a regular basis, providing an ample supply.

The wood's distinctive appearance is a result of the salt and murk in the lagoon water, the battering of countless gondolas and the scars of marine micro-organisms that bored into the poles. 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 said, referring to the tree's passing from the forest of its birth, to the lagoon and then to the concept car. "It now reveals its unique texture and the wear and tear of passing time."

The reuse of a discarded natural wood like the Venetian briccole poles is just one example of recycled materials incorporated into eco-friendly automotive designs.

For the top-line 2014 Ram pickup, the cowboy-themed Laramie Longhorn, designers at the Chrysler Group also drew inspiration from reclaimed wood.

Ryan Nagode, the chief interior designer for Ram, Fiat and SRT, said in an interview that he wanted a "ranch atmosphere" for the Longhorn's interior. He chose European walnut that had been used as fence posts. Besides its distinctive grain, the wood bears the marks of the barbed wire that was once wrapped around it. "I wanted it to have the feel of the worn stock of an old shotgun or rifle," he said. "I really wanted it to show that it's real wood."

The use of plastic fake wood in car interiors may finally be going the way of vinyl roofs and plastic body cladding.

"Luxury car buyers demand authentic materials," Mike Sayer, the product public relations manager for Bentley Motors, said in an interview last month at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. At the race, Bentley introduced a limited-edition Continental GT featuring exotic hardwood interior trim.

Among Bentley's more popular offerings are packages of trim made from walnut stumps, with its signature burl pattern. At Bentley, veneers are used in the Continental GT coupe and the Flying Spur sedan, but for the handbuilt Mulsanne, thick planks are carved into sill plates, instrument panel bezels, tray tables and the like.

Bentley's bespoke department will try to satisfy a customer's request for any kind of wood, including "custom orders using trees from their own property," Mr. Sayer said.

BMW, impressed with the way the Gran Lusso's interior turned out, has announced plans to use panels of sustainably farmed eucalyptus in its new i3 electric car. Aston Martin and Lexus are among automakers offering bamboo as an optional trim, a rapidly renewable material.

Of course, using wood in automobiles is nothing new. Early cars had frames and body components fashioned from oak, ash, heart of pine and other hardwoods. So-called woodies -- notably wagons and roadsters -- were trimmed with real wood until the early 1950s -- and today such vehicles are sought-after collectibles.

But to save money, automakers turned to woodgrain plastics, a generally unappealing and unloved trim component. In contrast, the use of reclaimed or sustainably farmed wood offers not only the undeniable appeal of authentic materials, but also a sense of enduring quality -- as well as a measure of snob appeal.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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