What Reclaimed Wood Meant

In my earlier post on the aesthetics of the tech industry, I traced the recent history since 2005 of tech design from a plain, post-bust utilitarianism in the mid-2000s to its gaudy Orange period circa 2007 to its return to a self-consciously industrial style by 2010. In this post I will describe what happened next. What happened next can be summed up by one now-ubiquitous material: reclaimed wood.

When I left San Francisco in 2011 it was during the high Bunker period of tech aesthetics, in which I spent my days in a renovated Hewlett Packard building whose design function was to be as heavy, enclosing, and neo-industrial as possible. The office environment, if ironically pleasing in a NSA-esque 1960s data center way, was the physical manifestation for me of this technical dominance: heavy, dark, consuming, wanting all of me and my time in service of the company mission.

This, essentially, was an aesthetic problem, and it had an aesthetic solution: which was to change environments and surround myself with another for a while. Out of instinct I went to the desert, to Texas, and I can now see why: the aesthetic answer to the heavy, concrete enclosure of the Hewlett-Packard building (and its digital manifestation in terms of the walled web we built there) was an endless horizon, a place with no cover or enclosure, where space seemed infinite. In West Texas you can see forever and there is no shade. People go there because the one luxury they can't buy in infinite quantities in New York or San Francisco is space, and in West Texas space is in decadent abundance, acres upon acres of luxurious, inexpensive space. The richer people are, the more space they buy: Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin space center occupies an enormous plot of land 100 miles north, which in Texas isn't very far away, because, again: there is so much space.

  West Texas sky. These cisterns almost seem like an installation, but they are actually  part of a ranch. 

West Texas sky. These cisterns almost seem like an installation, but they are actually  part of a ranch. 

But if I went to the desert for space, when I got there I discovered another element that is abundant in desert architecture that was visually startling to me in its newness after the hard, gray-green industrial tones of the Bunker. This "new" material-- wood-- seemed so interesting to me that in 2011 I made a Facebook album called Reclaimed Wood to chart the material and its aesthetic progress to popularity, of which I was already certain. The first photos I took were of the ceiling in an old Ice Locker that Donald Judd, the original gentrifier, had purchased in Marfa. Built in the early 1900s, the locker had heavy white stucco and iron walls but the most beautiful, heavy, old, vintage wooden railroad beams in its ceiling; the effect of the wood was to soften what would be a hard industrial space into a pleasing, welcoming, artisanal atmosphere, and this is why Judd bought the building and converted it into an artist workshop and studio space. Judd, in a sense, predicted Reclaimed Wood forty years before everyone else caught on. All of the buildings he purchased in Marfa are masterful, original, unstudied versions of what has now become a national craze: the American industrial building with a soft, artistic and artisanal side. In Marfa these buildings were built for the railroad and then abandoned, decayed, and converted to art functions later. Thus their combined hardness/softness has had decades to develop.

  Vintage wood ceiling in an old Texas army base converted to art gallery (this is NOT the locker plant, I need to dig up some pictures of that to post as it is the most beautiful).

Vintage wood ceiling in an old Texas army base converted to art gallery (this is NOT the locker plant, I need to dig up some pictures of that to post as it is the most beautiful).

After some months in Texas, I returned to the city and noticed that wood was steadily appearing everywhere and spreading. It began in small coffee shops like Four Barrel coffee shop (along with its textile counterpart, nautical rope, which often accompanies wood as a nod to wood's ship-ly connotations of pirates and sailors) and spread to restaurants and finally, back to the same tech company offices that I had left in pursuit of space and more organic forms. That's to say that the irony of all of this is that no environments have been more committed to retrofitting themselves with reclaimed wood than the very spaces that drive the technology that drives people to seek refuge from technology in more open, organic spaces. As technology filled our lives, so did our lives become increasingly filled with soft wooden beams and forms, a kind of reverse de-industrialization of the technical space using organic materials. We now plant these warm-colored, gnarled wooden objects like talismans amid our screens, a reminder of organic shapes, something to touch that, reassuringly, can't be swiped on.

  Reclaimed wood elements on heavy display at the Square offices in downtown San Francisco. 

Reclaimed wood elements on heavy display at the Square offices in downtown San Francisco. 

It is thus that we have reached Peak Reclaimed Wood, where some restaurants and coffee shops are so plastered in vintage wooden planks and beams that there is no room for a single new plank of wood (in these spaces, the wood becomes less an accent than an attempt to create the illusion of living in a cabin, which is a related desire to reclaimed wood, but not identical. The desire to live in a coffee-house-as-cabin-- or to import actual cabins into your tech cafeteria, as Twitter did-- is something like a desire to live in the country or the past, without actually living there). And so, because aesthetics have to shift when they become saturated, what is next?

In my next post I will address what comes after Reclaimed Wood and why I think the next turn will be to 80s Hilton-esque business hotel stylings and what that means about us and what we need now.

[on edit: the followup post ended up as an article in Aeon magazine]