The Challenge of a Chair: Students Compete to Create One-of-a-Kind Chair

For the past 13 years, Wilsonart has been hosting a student chair design competition to challenge students to come up with a unique chair design.
Courtesy Wilsonart

If there is one object that remains a source of endless fascination for designers, it is undoubtedly the chair. For the past 13 years, the Wilsonart Challenges Student Chair Design Competition has been presenting students across the United States with this ultimate test. Hosted by a different design school each year, the program is both a competition and a yearlong class, during which students are tasked with designing and building a one-of-a-kind chair, while also preparing for a major trade show. Wilsonart supplies the materials and technical expertise; design historian Grace Jeffers oversees the program and provides it with a much-needed historical framework.

This year, Wilsonart challenged a San Diego State University class led by Matthew Hebert to explore the city’s geographical and cultural context under the theme “Borders, Boundaries, and Mash-Up.” The students’ responses drew from sources as divergent as Roman columns and San Diego’s Chicano Park murals, and produced equally disparate results—from chairs boasting whimsical Postmodern curves to others made up of roughhewn angles.

The totemic form and dark Milano Rosso laminate (imitating rock frequently used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) of the winning entry, A Piece of Tlaltecuhtli, were taken from a historical relief that the designer, Matthew John Bacher, observed during a visit to Mexico City. In his choice of source material, Bacher wanted to join the discussion on cultural appropriation: The chair’s disjointed, fragmentary nature is meant to speak to the impossibility of forming a complete picture of a culture not your own. “The chair is intended to look as if it were an artifact on display in a museum,” Bacher says. “I wanted to hint at how museums have objectified non-Western cultures and what it means to ‘sit on’ another culture.”

At the end of the program, Bacher’s chair will debut at ICFF this month, along with the five runners-up, before traveling to the ASID Leadership Experience event in San Diego in July.

Categories: Design Education, Furniture, Homepage

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