Students in the catbird seat

Aubree Park (from left), Andrew Cesarz and Ben Gilling have all taken first place in a chair-design competition that occurs annually at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning. First place winners get their ideas made full-scale. (Photo by Troye Fox)

Andrew Cesarz was inspired by a discarded banana peel. Aubree Park was thinking about a plant emerging from its seed.

Both UWM students are describing the ideas behind the chairs they designed in the popular freshman course taught by Architecture Professor Mark Keane.

“It’s almost like a foreign language,” says Keane about design. “It comes to some people more readily than others.”

Open to freshmen of any major, the course is offered yearly by the School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP), and introduces students to design form and function, culminating in the creation of some 300 model chairs.

Video by  Brian Schmidlin


Mark Keane and his students discuss creating chairs in Keane’s freshman design course. View full size on YouTube.

But the project doesn’t end with the grades. The models are displayed throughout the SARUP building where students and staff vote for their favorite.

The top choice is then constructed at full scale by Nemschoff, a Sheboygan-based furniture manufacturer that is a division of HermanMiller Healthcare. This year, the company will construct the 12th chair from the competition.

“There were a lot more curves, a lot more challenges in this piece than I ever imagined,” says Ben Gilling, whose armchair-recliner with graceful arches won the most recent competition. “I was a little bit inspired by human form and dancers, just the way that they can bend.”

Cesarz, whose design won last year, especially liked the irony of the shape he used for his chair – “that iconic banana peel that you’d see in a cartoon.

“I thought, ‘what a novel idea,’” he says. “With the banana form, instead of making somebody fall down, they could actually sit on it and it would support them.”

Making the real thing

Working with students offers Nemschoff designers the opportunity to tap into the collective creativity, says Scott Reynolds, Nemschoff vice president of product development.

“We have learned things from each of the students. Various elements from their chairs in some way have always made it into our products since things are always learned when taking a design concept and turning it into a real product.”

Working with an actual chair company to turn her model into reality was hands-down the most exciting part of the competition, says Park, now a senior in architecture, whose ‘leaf’ rocker won in 2010.

After visiting the company plant while her prototype was being made, Park says she learned that design isn’t all about looks. “It was built exactly how it was in my model with the same dimensions and everything. Then I got to sit in it and see what was wrong – what kind of design mistakes I made.”

Reynolds counts Park’s concept among his favorites of the chairs constructed over the years.

Industry connection

All of the winning models have been worthy of construction, says SARUP Dean Bob Greenstreet.

“The Nemschoff partnership is a wonderful, enduring relationship between UWM and an important Wisconsin corporation,” he says. “This opportunity provides an invaluable experience for our students and connects them to the professional world in a very powerful way.”

Though many who take the course are pre-architecture majors it has attracted a variety of other majors too, from Russian literature to chemistry. A few have even switched their majors to architecture after the experience, says Keane.

Current champ Gilling is still undecided about his major, but enrolled in the class to explore architecture. He is looking forward to seeing the end product.

“I feel great. I want to be able to sit on it,” he says. “The second I finished this thing I thought it looked very comfortable.”