Secret life of trees

Liew Yu Hua is a local designer-maker who draws inspiration from the untold stories of nature to create furniture and objects mindfully.

  • Secret life of trees

Text by Stephanie Peh

In search of a purposeful occupation, Liew Yu Hua left her corporate job in 2016 to pick up woodworking in a vocational furniture school in Scotland. She eventually apprenticed for landscape designer John Thompson in Vancouver Island where she learnt about different design disciplines, form and function. In 2019, she started Secret Life of Trees, forging down an unorthodox path in a homeland where few can discern between the mass-produced and handcrafted.

Secret Life of Trees
Liew Yu Hua at her workshop

“Living a life that allows me to be so in touch with nature and the gifts of the earth makes it all worthwhile,” Yu Hua says despite the challenges and loneliness that come with her chosen profession. Her furniture creations are art pieces in their own right, each organic curve and unaltered vein a poetic connection to nature. Unlike furniture designed using software and made in a factory, Yu Hua – armed with hand tools and the hand techniques she has learnt – begins with the material, carefully sculpting it by listening closely to the unspoken clues; the untold stories of trees.

The Butterfly chair Secret Life of Trees
The Butterfly Chair

“If I make a wrong move, the wood fibres tear out in a horrendous manner,” she cautions, adding that avoiding waste is important for her. It is all about giving second life to the tree. “In most cases, the tree is much older than I am, and it graciously teaches me lessons on how it would like to be treated and shaped; but I have to be open to listening to its teachings,” she adds. Rather than her forcing it to conform to her desire, the wood tells her where and how to cut. “As I work, I’m observing how the tree grew. The knots in the tree from old branches, or the twists and turns in the grain, and the amount of sapwood versus hardwood, or the width of the tree’s rings indicate how the tree has survived and thrived throughout its life,” she explains.

AER Coffee Table
AER Coffee Table

While dexterity improves with persistence and experience, empathy is an important value for anybody wishing to create something meaningful for another person. Yu Hua also draws inspiration from people, which explains the humanistic quality behind her pieces. “Furniture and objects are created for people to use and enjoy, so it’s important to look outside my field when creating,” she says, having worked in various sectors and volunteered for the health corps when COVID-19 hit. Yu Hua believes that her varied life experiences have helped her to better understand the needs of others to create pieces that ultimately bring comfort and joy to people.

Memory Chest
Memory Chest

Secret Life of Trees

This article first appeared in Lookbox Living issue 64

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