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Quarantined U of M design class makes dope furniture of found materials

These blue velvet chairs by Rachel Mansun have an elegant, avant garde design achieved with a few nondescript pieces of wood.

These blue velvet chairs by Rachel Mansun have an elegant, avant garde design achieved with a few nondescript pieces of wood. Rachel Mansun

Tom Oliphant’s furniture design class at the University of Minnesota is normally a very hands-on experience.

Students meet in a workshop stocked with every tool and material they could want for their projects: saws, fiberglass, concrete, foam, and several staff members on hand to give advice and answer questions about equipment. The only limits are creativity and time.

At the moment, Oliphant and his students can’t be together. The university switched exclusively to online classes last month in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Oliphant says he suspected early on this was going to be the way of things for the rest of the accademic year. He couldn’t just wait until his class regained access to the workshop. His students needed a way to work from a distance.

“I lost sleep worrying about it,” he says.

So, when it came time for the class to build a pair of identical chairs of their own design, he made an important decision. The project would continue as planned, with one caveat.

“I limited them to the materials they could find in their safe harbors,” he says. That meant whatever they could scrounge or “cannibalize” from student dorms, or out on their parents’ farms, or wherever they were weathering the quarantine. Binding agents, like glue or string, could be purchased for delivery. The rest would have to be made of whatever was on hand.

You can sit in design student Dan Pergrin's re-purposed fabric chair pretty much any way you want.

You can sit in design student Dan Pergrin's re-purposed fabric chair pretty much any way you want. Dan Pergrin

Oliphant wasn’t sure how this would go. He was particularly worried about his ability to effectively communicate important concepts through a screen. How could he evaluate a chair he couldn’t touch, let alone sit in? As he met with his students over Zoom and got a look at what they were putting together, he realized things were going shockingly well.

The chairs, despite a certain scrappiness in their materials, were as sleek as any you might find in an artsy office. Some were crafted out of plastic garbage bins. Others were scavenged from an old wooden fence. Some, like Charlie Kuok’s cardboard chairs, came together with little more than a knife and a lot of time literally hammering the material into a comfortable contour for the human backside.

Yup -- that's cardboard. Charlie Kuok made these chairs in his small apartment with little more than a knife and a hammer.

Yup -- that's cardboard. Charlie Kuok made these chairs in his small apartment with little more than a knife and a hammer. Charlie Kuok

As the projects came along, Oliphant got used to letting the students be his eyes and ears. He’d ask them to lift or rotate their projects, to sit in them and tell him what they were feeling. Despite his sleepless nights, he found enough “empathy” on either side of the screen to make the feedback process worthwhile. They had a studio class without the literal studio.

Oliphant hopes one day soon they’ll be back in the workshop, but he doesn’t doubt the experience he and his students have picked up will come in handy again.

“I think we’ll begin to anticipate ways to move seamlessly from the classroom and back to quarantine again,” he says. “It’s a form of literacy, to teach in alternate ways. I feel it’s really increased my literacy as a teacher to move across platforms like this.”

That’s the story each of these chairs tells, of taking a situation that's far less than ideal and trying to make something useful.

You can browse more examples of these homemade chairs on the University of Minnesota’s College of Design Facebook page.