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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Wilsonart's future-themed 2019 Student Chair Design program built on Kent State's tragic pas


Wilsonart's 2019 Student Chair Design winners at ICFF, with program director Grace Jeffers (fourth from left) and winning "Assembly" entry at left.

Each year Wilsonart, the Temple, Texas-based manufacturer of laminates and other composite materials for furniture and other applications, sponsors a year-long student design class and competition at a select college, with the winner and five runners-up, in addition to receiving scholarships, displaying their entries at the annual ICFF high-end luxury furniture fair at New York’s Javits Center.

The competition involves designing a handmade one-of-a-kind chair, and this year’s 15th Annual Wilsonart Challenges Student Chair Design Competition took place at Kent State University in Ohio, with the Kent State College of Architecture and Environmental Design students instructed to create their chairs based on the theme “The Future.” For the first time, the students were encouraged to explore the theme through parametric design and digital fabrication using patterns from the Wilsonart Laminate Collection.

“Using parametric design and digital fabrication helped the students conceive, design and build chairs that have an architectural sense to them,” said noted design historian Grace Jeffers--also program director for Wilsonart Challenges--at Wilsonart’s big display space at ICFF.

“Through this process, the students have created stunning chairs that are an excellent expression of the brief they were given--to think about the future.”

Jeffers nominates up to 10 schools each year to host Wilsonart Challenges, and was sold on Kent State after being invited to speak there at a Women in Design conference.

“What won me over was the friendliness of the students and their eagerness to learn,” Jeffers recalled. “I lecture a lot and found that the students at Kent State asked really thoughtful questions and showed an authentic eagerness to be the best they could be.”

Other factors favoring Kent State included its new architecture and environmental design building, noted Jeffers, “and Dr. Pamela Evans, the director of the Interior Design Program and the IIDA [International Interior Design Association] 2018 Educator of the Year, is a legend in interior design education. Also, Mark Mistur, the new dean, came from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Architecture and is quite an interesting thinker—and Kent State’s interior design program is 50 years old and a keystone in the professionalization of interior design. So the school had it down in spades.”

But even while looking ahead to the future, Kent State’s past was never far behind.

“When I was there for the conference, I asked to be taken to the May 4 Memorial--and they were surprised,” said Jeffers, referring to the memorial site commemorating the tragic events of May 4, 1970, when four Kent State students were gunned down by Ohio National Guardsmen during a campus protest against the U.S. bombing of Cambodia.

“I told them I really didn’t see how I could go to Kent State without seeing it,” Jeffers continued. “It was such a profound moment in American history, and I met many people in my career who moved to Canada or changed their life because of it. So it was very important to me to go there, and when I saw the landscape--basically a bowl, with the parking lot and buildings on a ridge and the National Guard in front of a building firing down into the pit of students--and then saw the outline of the bodies and the Prentice Parking Lot memorial markers, it made it all seem so everyday, before all of life changed in an instant.”

Although Jeffers didn’t choose Kent State because of the May 4 massacre, when she brought the competition jury there she began with a visit to the May 4 Visitors Center.

“I also gave them a gift bag that contained an ornament from Don Drumm, the former Kent State student whose big steel sculpture [Solar Totem #1] has a bullet hole from the shootings—which caused one of the students to realize they were using live ammo and alert others that they were in imminent danger. So I gave them a piece of Don Drumm history, because it’s all connected: He studied design there--and the more connections you make, the more meaningful something is.”

For student Kathryn Wills, one of the competition’s runners-up, the connection to Kent State’s history is particularly strong.

“I was born and raised in Medina—about 45 minutes from Kent State,” said Wills, who at 22 was born long after the shootings.

“In my freshman year, my dorm was across from Taylor Hall—where the event happened. So I had to cross the parking lot every morning on my walk to class—and walk past the memorial every single day. Our new building is a bit off campus, and I’ve moved out to an apartment so I don’t pass it anymore. But every May 4 there’s a ceremony, and I try to go. It’s an important event in the history of Kent State and the world, and I have relatives who are still here whose perception on life was completely. So even if it’s no longer part of your everyday routine, you have to remind yourself of its meaning.”

Wills’ chair is called Emergence.

“Grace asked what the future meant to us and to think of one word that represented it and mine was ‘emergence,’” said Wills. “So I was thinking about life as a constant process and journey through ups and downs, in wavelike motions--kind of like a roller coaster. As you progress through life, you experience many things, and it’s hard to get too comfortable. That’s why my chair is 15 inches off the ground: It’s hard to get too comfortable in it—like in life—and when you’re about to get up you have to really work to propel yourself and emerge into the future or the next event in your life. But the fun colors symbolize how life can be fun, and how you can always keep an optimistic outlook in life.”

Architectural student Greg Genter’s Assembly was the winning chair. As its name suggests, the interactive entry consisted of five varied shapes and sizes that can be assembled according to the preference of the user, thereby exploring what a chair should be. While Kent State’s history had no bearing on it, Genter described an architecture project which did in fact relate to the university’s dark past.

“It had to do with ocular and optical effects in creating visual effects through architecture,” Genter said. “I focused on the imagery of the May 4 Memorial and used images from the May 4 incident to create ocular effects manifested through anamorphic projection--which distorts perspective and resolve when rotated to a certain angle.”

Among Genter’s images were the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was fatally shot by National Guardsmen, and a famous photo of the Guardsmen firing at the students.

“The project was specifically localized to Kent, and I thought it was important to take something of the area--as tragic as it was,” said Genter. “The university originally tried to downplay it, but it put Kent on the map and it’s important to acknowledge it and not shy away from it--and now the university is doing more and more, and every student is required to go through the Visitors Center museum early on.”

“I think Kent State has done a very good job of not denying its history,” concluded Jeffers. “It could have remained something they didn’t deal with, but now they’re very respectful and nonpartisan.”

She noted that she herself wept at the May 4 Memorial.

“At the end of the day, the government fired on a bunch of kids,” she said. “But our theme this year is the future, and Kent State now does a really good job of acknowledging the past while moving toward the future. So the students’ works are really about looking forward: To have explored the future anywhere else might be sort of contrived, but I think Kent State holds the future in a very specific way that really impressed me.”

The 2011 Wilsonart Challenges Student Chair Design Competition



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