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The Elegance of Wood

In the building traditions of other countries it may be fine stones and hand-made tiles - in Vorarlberg, that status is given to wood. In the Bregenzerwald region, the knowledge about this age-old building material is being preserved and applied with a contemporary twist.

Exploiting its intrinsic beauty is just one reason why so many craftsmen, master builders and architects in Vorarlberg have devoted themselves to this special material with heart and hand. What fascinates them all is that wood from the region is the answer to so many pressing questions in our lives – from sustainable protection of nature to a style of living to delight the senses: wood eases the burden on our environment, and decelerates time. It creates a healthy atmosphere in a room and  equalizes humidity. It re-grows, can be obtained easily and disposed of without residual waste, and saves energy.

The fact that wood is also durable and still looks great even after centuries has much to do with the care with which it is selected, felled, dried and worked – a care that has been handed down through the ages. Thus roofing tiles are made from water-repellent larch. The weather side of a building is clad in pine and the side facing the sun in spruce, while Swiss pine is just right for terrace floors. When felling the wood, the phases of the moon play are every bit as important as the timing of what is felled when, and for what purpose. Wood acquired in winter, out of the growing season, is a naturally long-lasting wood for construction; by contrast, wood felled in summer when the moon is waxing is suitable for pile constructions in water, such as wooden jetties or boathouses. It may sound like a country saying, but it is wisdom confirmed empirically over centuries and now backed up by laboratory tests.

Take a ‘culture of wood’ walk in Hittisau, and you can track the roots of the craftsman’s skill in handling this forward-looking material with its promise of a better world: the arc spans from a visit to a Bregenzerwald farmhouse to crossing the oldest covered wooden bridge in Vorarlberg, before leading on to a modernized inn and the newly-built ‘Feuerwehr- und Kulturhaus’, serving both as the fire station and the building housing the Hittisau Museum of Women. Wood plays the main role in all these constructions: it is sleek, elegant, spectacular. And it smells great!

It can be experienced close enough to touch at the wood workshop run by Markus Faißt, who devotes love, commitment, serious application and immense skill to making furniture for the good life – from Zurich to Athens, from Washington to Vienna. Dining, living, working, sleeping – these are the things he focuses on; for instance, he has designed a bed that does away entirely with metal and glue. The individual parts are connected using dovetail joints, a carpentry technique that is as simple as it is sophisticated. By way of contrast, the Werkraum Bregenzerwald has established itself in Andelsbuch as a competence center for wood. New furniture and objects in wood are exhibited at the werkraum depot, the showroom in Schwarzenberg. One particularly fascinating piece is a doweled fountain in pine wood, with its clarity of design: the wooden dowels swell up when coming in contact with water, and the fountain – that can simultaneously be a bathing tub – becomes sealed. A further delight is wooden shoes: traditionally, these were the clogs worn when working on the farm. But with long-hair goatskin applied as the leather upper, they become an exhilarating celebration of fashion.

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