If you browse through our archives from ICFF event coverage, you’re bound to stumble on a number of “best of” posts that include the Wilsonart Student Chair Design Competition booth as it’s often one of our favorites. We’ve discovered so many talented student designers, many whom have gone on to launch design firms or work with big-name design brands and designers.
The Wilsonart Student Chair Design Competition is both a school class and a competition that involves students at a different school, in a different part of the country each year. Schools are chosen by merit and the professors are carefully selected. Wilsonart not only partners with the school, but supplies the materials and technical expertise, and involvement of design historian Grace Jeffers who oversees the program. Not only is she very educated in materials, but she’s super passionate about the competition.
Now beginning its 13th year, Wilsonart brings its competition to San Diego State University (SDSU) in a class led by Matthew Hebert. Being a San Diego resident, I was overjoyed when I was asked to follow along as the students embark on this exciting task… a task which seems simple: design a chair. However, it gets incredibly complex from there: The chair must use Wilsonart® Laminate. It needs to function like a chair, but should be a head-turner. When people walk up and down the aisles at ICFF, the chairs need to catch their attention. In other words, designing a plain old chair that looks anything like the archetype won’t get you a prize in this competition. But wait… there’s more! They have to build it, too. The chair needs to be completed, built and functional by May of the following year, assuming it’s headed to ICFF. That’s why Wilsonart partners with schools that advocate building and hands-on design training. Only the winner and a handful of students with the most unique and creative designs will be invited to attend and show their chair at the prestigious ICFF design event.
But why a chair? Grace Jeffers explains that a chair is a powerful and concise design expression. “Let’s be honest,” she examples, “there is something about chairs that is catnip for the design brain. We love them and we can never get enough of them.” So true!
Because these chairs won’t be mass produced, the students have much more freedom of expression. Although functional, as mentioned, they’ve gotta be show stoppers. They reside in the territory between art and design. Grace told me that many professors have said this is one of the most liberating assignments they have ever experienced.
Grace’s involvement with the ICFF began 25 years ago. She explains how she quickly learned the struggle young designers had to fund the building of their new designs, let alone afford launching them at a fair like ICFF. “Other countries have Ministers of Culture and trade departments that take an active role in promoting design. The United States has no such practice,” she explains. The Wilsonart program is an effort to combat this and to promote, encourage and support emerging American designers.
In the course of this program, these student designers will learn how to design, build and launch their work; how to participate in a trade show, how to interact with design media. They are shown the ropes. And they get all expenses covered and get to keep the IP for their designs. What an opportunity! I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds…