Yakisugi is on the rise, says Jane Perrone, and UK designers are making it their own
Have you spotted blackened timber everywhere, from RHS Chelsea show gardens to upscale garden furniture brochures? Yakisugi – the Japanese technique of preserving wood through charring, then brushing the surface – has, like so many Eastern building traditions, begun to permeate west in recent years.
The stark simplicity of charred wood with an ‘alligator skin’ texture has made yakisugi (roughly translated as ‘burned cedar board’) irresistible to designers and architects all over the world. As Architectural Digest noted, “The gravitas imparted by the process and finished result are undeniable, a blackening of the wood that reveals clean, distinct lines and an inherent textural beauty.”
Yakisugi came to my attention at Chelsea in 2013, when Christopher Bradley-Hole’s Telegraph show garden featured walls cladded with charred oak. In 2016, furniture company Sitting Spiritually drew attention to the look with its yakisugi floating bench, which was a finalist for Chelsea product of the year.
As the trend has grown, several more UK-based garden designers have begun to incorporate the aesthetic into their projects. Earlier this year SGD Student Member Briony Doubleday of Bee’s Gardens won a Gold medal for her garden The Penumbra at Tatton this year, featuring charred wood cladding. And in 2017, Pre-Registered Member Andy Kirman used charred timber structures from North Wales firm Denbigh Timber in his Kuro garden, which won a Gold medal and Best Large Garden at the Southport Flower Show.
Kirman found out about the technique from a member of his team who came across it on a visit to Japan a decade ago, and was delighted to be able to incorporate it into his garden. Kirman’s reasoning behind using charred timber was twofold. “It increases its fire resistance and has the added benefit of discouraging insect damage, and the black finish created a really good foil for the Equisetums we used in the garden,” he explains.
Karl Harrison of Buckinghamshire-based landscape company Exterior Solutions Ltd was an early adopter of yakisugi, which he learned about from a Japanese friend in the early 2000s. He began experimenting with burning techniques in his back garden in 2004 and first used it in a project for a client back in 2009, burning and brushing 3,000sq m of wood himself, going on to set up his own workshop with several full-time staff.
“I then created a brand to differentiate from what they do in Japan, burning the wood by hand, and how I mass produce it, so I created the phrase Shou Sugi Ban,” Harrison explains. Many projects have followed, including everything from restaurant interior walls to exterior cladding for garden studios: recently Harrison supplied garden designer Hannah Collins with charred cedar cladding for a garden that featured an outdoor kitchen and pergola.
While methods and timber used may vary from its Japanese origins – there are as many ways of achieving the yakisugi look as there are practitioners, it seems – it’s clear that charred timber is set to grow in popularity in the UK, loved for its minimalist aesthetic and unusual, low-maintenance finish.