Bio-composite wood board, sourcing natural fibers, low VOCs, steam molding, and the importance of design

Between keeping chemical emissions in check, setting high standards of performance, and meeting the increasing demand for naturally sourced products, today’s furniture manufacturers have plenty of boxes to tick. Even when they have a material that does all three, they still face a long, winding road to develop and implement that material for new products and applications.

That’s how LUX, a bio-composite wood board made from natural fibers, branched away from its automotive roots to become a feature at the world’s largest furniture industry trade show.

From bud to bloom: Building furniture from natural sources

In many ways, LUX was built from the ground up. The fibers were grown in unused tropical lands. Those natural fibers eventually made it from the soil to the studio, where designer Maria Yee, Inc. crafted its latest collection of furniture and lighting designs.

The California-based studio unveiled the new collection, called Origami, at the High Point Market in October. The trade show attracts over 75,000 furniture industry guests semi-annually.

“It’s a highly visible natural content that you really can see.”

Each piece in the collection features LUX as a central component. Maria Yee collaborated with BASF to create the bio-composite wood board, working towards a lightweight, renewable and overall eco-friendly material for furniture applications.

After four years of development, LUX emerged as a strong and sustainable alternative to more commonly-used materials like medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

“[LUX’s] flexible properties are higher than MDF and other wood boards,” says Henning Karbstein, Manager of New Business Development and Idea Management at BASF. “[It has] higher mechanical properties so you can design the parts lighter.”

LUX is about 60 percent less dense than MDF, which translates into weight reduction of up to 90 percent. It also offers comparable strength and performance, including heat-, scratch- and mold-resistant capabilities.

Working toward the studio’s goals of sustainable and environmentally conscious luxury furniture design, BASF and Maria Yee created LUX primarily from natural bast fibers like kenaf, hemp and jute.

“There is a lot of long and strong fiber in these plants, and they’re not competing with any food source,” Karbstein adds.

More than 70 percent of the reinforcement fibers in LUX board are derived from bast fiber sources.

As the manufacturing environment shifts towards safer and more eco-friendly practices, companies like Maria Yee have focused on running green, low-emissions factories. Unlike MDF, which can release harmful emissions from binders like phenol formaldehyde and isocyanates, LUX’s safely sourced composition leads to much lower emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Luxury furniture and love at first sight

Before its debut in the furniture industry, LUX — or the beginnings of LUX — cut its teeth in automotive manufacturing. BASF combined the first iteration of its natural composite from bast fibers and Acrodur, a water-based acrylic resin, as a lightweight alternative for fuel-efficient, high-performance automotive applications. The bio-composite has been built into BMW door frames and Mercedes roof frames, to name a few examples.

How did BASF’s original bio-composite make it to the furniture industry? It all began in 2013 when Seth Stem, professor of Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, collaborated with BASF on a new furniture project.

“For four years Maria Yee has worked with BASF to find the right applications, the right cutting, and the right forming techniques to create the right furniture.”

Stem’s project set out to test the possible applications of a natural fiber composite made from hemp and Acrodur. The final product — a roomy lounge chair — demonstrated potential for a safe, sustainable and cost-effective alternative to plastic.

That’s where Maria Yee, the design studio’s namesake and CEO, was first inspired to create Origami.

“[Yee] saw the chair and fell in love with the design,” says Karbstein. The lounge chair matched with her studio’s mission to create smooth, natural-looking luxury furniture with environmentally friendly qualities.

The organic LUX aesthetic, Karbstein notes, contributes to its distinctive look and feel.

“It’s a highly visible natural content that you really can see,” he explains. “You can see the individual fibers.”

While other boards have more of a mixed, grainy consistency, LUX boards are dense with natural textures. They also feature a more organic coloration, highlighting their natural origins more clearly for consumers. 

Plug-and-play? No way

Maria Yee’s modernized furniture design system draws on ancient Chinese techniques, forgoing nails and screws in favor of a smooth, unmarred design. The latest collection continues in this tradition, combining the lightweight LUX board with the delicate aesthetic of origami papercraft.

Stem’s prototypical lounge chair featured just two parts built from BASF’s bio-composite — the seat and the back — but Yee discovered she could replace several other components with the material that would ultimately become LUX. To address the challenges inherent in her unique design specifications, her studio spent several years collaborating with BASF to realize the vision for her Origami collection.

“For four years Maria Yee has worked [with BASF] to find the right applications, the right cutting, and the right forming techniques to create the right furniture,” says Karbstein.

The Origami collection features furniture pieces and lighting fixtures that have been steam molded, miter folded, cut on CNC routers and dyed.

Karbstein adds that while furniture and other manufacturers may find many different applications for natural composites made from bast fibers and Acrodur resin technology, if they want to take advantage of its full capabilities, they will need to approach their goals from a strategic perspective.

Beyond that, it’s all about great design. “It’s not a plug-and-play solution,” Karbstein says, indicating that it takes work to adapt the material for new applications. “If you use the materials in a smart way, with the right design, you can overall create lighter pieces and use less material.”

The right approach may also mean big added benefits for manufacturers. The thinner and lighter material can potentially help businesses save money on shipping costs, conserve storage space and, thanks to the low VOC emission profile, improve employee safety in manufacturing facilities.

The Maria Yee Origami collection debuts at the High Point Market furniture industry trade show on October 14–18 in High Point, NC.

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