It’s safe to say that for many of us, real rules. One hundred percent cotton. Hardwood rather than laminate. Marble over formica. But the garden — that most natural of everyday realms — has long been home to imitation in the form of faux bois. French for “false wood,” this centuries-old tradition is all about illusion, transforming stone — and with the Industrial Revolution, reinforced concrete — into furniture, bridges and monuments made to look as if they are spun from branches, leaves, planks and tree stumps. While not yet a lost art, only a handful of artisans work in the form today. Michael Fogg of Ledyard is one of them.
A furniture designer with a special interest in capturing the patina and time-kissed quality of antiques, Fogg came across a faux bois bench in a shop years ago and set off on a quest to learn more about the technique. His education began with an online forum run by Donald Tucker, a Texas-based artisan who had become the guru of faux bois, and continued with a visit to faux bois practitioners in Provence, France. Fogg’s fascination with the creative possibilities and hands-on challenges of the art led him to make faux bois the central focus of his business. “The work itself,” he says, “is a constant exploration of form, detail and technique.”
Sinuous and seemingly delicate, Fogg’s naturalistic forms are made of concrete applied to a steel framework. And for all their eye-beguiling beauty, these pieces depend as much on solid engineering as they do the artist’s hand. “There is a compromise between form and function with every design that needs to be navigated,” Fogg explains. “There are limits to size and weight in regard to what is practical to ship, a limit on how slender the twigs can be before they become flimsy. Cantilevers can only extend so far before they tip or break. Freeze-thaw cycles are a concern, as these are one of the material’s main weaknesses, and durability in general, as people do put their feet up on tables.”
Working with concrete is a sort of dance, one that requires excellent timing as the material morphs from fluid to solid. “Concrete goes through a series of curing stages and different parts of the sculpting process are best accomplished at each stage,” Fogg says. “I have a series of benchmarks that I try to hit as it cures, and I can tell if I am keeping up or if I am going to be in trouble. On average, I have about four hours from mixing before I am forced to stop, although workability can be extended with chemical additives, as well as by controlling the ambient temperature. I can also hasten the cure when I wish to quickly add mass or a layer of reinforcement, and on a hot day it can set in 10 minutes. I view the time limit as a blessing because it forces me to stop working at a certain point.”
Not surprisingly, Fogg often uses actual trees as models, particularly when reproducing bark textures. “I greatly enjoy the look of mountain laurel, which are wonderfully twisty and gnarled, as well as weathered oak branches and deeply grooved maple bark. Driftwood is common in our coastal area, and in general I find aged and weathered wood to be more interesting. The process of decay reveals fibrous strands which flow, twist and eddy, supporting and knotting with each other in surprising ways, forming dynamic, energetic patterns. I often incorporate scars, cracks and other ‘imperfections’ which, as with people, are evidence of complexity, character and resilience.”