by Saxon Henry For those who claim there’s nothing new under the sun, a perusal of the youngest participants in this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) proves that a new generation brings with it fresh ideas. In this particular case, it was college sophomores from Philadelphia University who took to material experimentation, and an emotionalization of materials and design like experienced pros.
The project began when Grace Jeffers, the corporate muse for Wilsonart®, approached professor Josh Owen, whose students would be required to create artifacts reflecting the culture of the corporation using the company’s laminate. After Jeffers lectured the students about the history of laminate, Owen and teaching partner Jason Lempieri guided over twenty students through a month of material experimentation. Once they understood the peculiarities of the laminate—after heating it, bending it, twisting it, freezing it and painting it, they made maquettes of designs they wanted to explore, continuing to fine tune their ideas until they were satisfied that what they’d created was structurally sound (each chair had to support a 400-pound person) and aesthetically on-point. The chairs also had to reflect the student’s perceptions of Wilsonart’s place in American history and his or her aesthetic bent. “Our job as teachers was to help them find consistency in their thinking,” says Lempieri. “A good design professor’s task is to ask the right questions that inspire students to reach into themselves and discover what’s innately theirs.” The students were also charged with constructing the chairs themselves. Wilsonart normally brings one product from each year’s competition to the fair, but the designs were so outstanding this year that the company brought the winner and five runners up to ICFF. “The breadth of creativity, depth of context and high caliber of craft were among the top I’ve seen,” explains Jeffers. “Remember, these are sophomores in college and the results were stunning!”
Aodh O’Donnell, who was the winner of the competition with his Armadillo Chair, used the company’s sample chips to clad a buxom seat. “I wanted to use the shingle effect of the chip to achieve texture,” he says. “You usually only see the product on a flat surface and I wanted to draw attention to it in a different way.” His “celebration” of the chip struck me as important in one other aspect: he used something that most people would toss into the trash once they’ve finished with it. Jeffrey Steel took the chip to task as well, creating his Array Chair, which glorifies the chip chain. “I have always been drawn to math in my education,” he says. “I played with the chip chain, tossing it to see what patterns emerged, and created a chair that reads like an accidental pattern but is really very well studied.”
As Steel points out, it appears that the chips are floating, but they are anchored strongly in order to achieve the strength that was required. “Watching the progress of the chair emerging as I built it was an amazing experience,” says Steel. “When it was finished, I just sat and stared at it for a while because it was the manifestation of all I had hoped it would be and more.”
Julianne Magliaro was in attendance with her Imperial Chair, the inspiration for which came from two sources—one ancient and one modern. “I was inspired by the Qing Dynasty’s Imperial Rector’s Chair for its proportions and I created the lattice work by mapping all of the distributors of Wilsonart products. Margliaro’s original maquette was an interplay of colors celebrating stained glass, but Owen and Lempieri encouraged her to dig deeper to make her design more dynamic. Their advice was dead-on, as the resulting white/black interplay, interrupted by only one solid shape in red, stands up to the most sophisticated designs to come out of the most prestigious design houses.
Geoff Quinter’s Diner Chair exemplifies 50’s era Americana. “I love the aesthetics of the simple Formica table of that period and the streamline appeal of the diner stool,” he says. “I took those visceral images and bent them into a chair that recalls both, which are iconic pieces of Americana.”
Dan Worthers created the Xpress Chair to represent Wilsonart’s dynamic manufacturing process. “It’s a very big chair because I wanted to illustrate how much they’ve grown,” he says. “I considered the colors carefully, selecting the three that the company first produced.” Worthers was inspired to embrace every facet of this process of experimentation equally: “My heart is in being the generalist in industrial design—it’s all about the exploration!” Alyward Omoding was not in attendance, but his Makuu “Pride” Chair was, which Lempieri explained was a celebration of the student’s African heritage. “It pushes the limits of the material and uses it to create an intricate surface of woven construction,” Omoding wrote in his statement about his product. “The chair creates a carpet-like texture that transforms into a chair.”
Seeing young college students taking this project so seriously is a heartening forecast for the future of design. What struck me about the chairs in person is that I could envision each one of them ensconced in the home of a limited edition or one-off furniture collector or in a furniture gallery—fully at ease among experimental pieces by Marc Newson, Ron Arad and the Campana Brothers. This article was originally written for The Curated Object. Students from Virginia Tech were sporting their prototypical designs at the show. More on DesignCommotion.