UW News

April 17, 2012

Furniture as architecture: UW Press publishes book on course in furniture design — with slide show

UW News

Catharine Killien, a student in Furniture Studio class, presents her project at final review in spring of 2010.

Catharine Killien, a student in Furniture Studio class, presents her project at final review in spring of 2010.

When Megan Schoch entered the fabrication shop in the UW’s Gould Hall on a Monday afternoon in early February 2009, she was shocked. The Honduras mahogany shed cut the previous Friday, part of the initial work on her final project in a graduate course on furniture design and construction, had warped and twisted.

It wasnt clear whether Schoch could still use the wood, which had been expensive. Whats more, she would lose precious time on an elegant table she had designed. But that day initiated lessons that took Schoch beyond the world of fine furniture.

Her experience and those of students like her — plus extraordinary furniture that has come out of 23 years of the furniture studio course in the Department of Architecture — are subject of a new book, “Furniture Studio: Materials, Craft, and Architecture.” Written by Jeffrey Ochsner, a UW professor of architecture, the book was published this month by the University of Washington Press (304 pages, $45 hardcover).

Ochsner will speak about the book and sign copies at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30, in Architecture Hall 147.

In the book, Ochsner tells stories of the furniture through its creators, people like Andris (Andy) Vanags, a senior lecturer who taught the course from 1989 until his retirement in 2009.

The first day of the winter 2009 class, precisely at 12:30 p.m., 66-year-old Vanags strode to the front of the shop classroom and began speaking. “He did not raise his voice,” Ochsner writes, “he simply expected quiet.”  With a full, graying beard and steady blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, Vanags projected the focus he expected of his students.

To those lucky enough to get in the class — it was invariably oversubscribed — hed already sent a memo: “Attendance at all studio meetings for the entire time is a requirement.” Too bad if that didnt fit the students schedule; Vanags allowed no exceptions. He also warned that the work would require considerably more time each week than the 15 hours of class. Materials would cost at least $500, maybe considerably more.

Vanags had told students to bring scale drawings of three project ideas to the first class. About 95 percent of students arrive with little experience, but among the 11 students that quarter there were outliers such as Ernie Pulford, who had a few years of experience as a furniture maker both in the United States and Europe.

Several times during the studio and at the end, a panel of furniture designers and craftspeople would critique each students work. The Pacific Northwest has become a center of the studio furniture movement, Vanags had told the class, and members would benefit from knowledge of key people.

For Schoch, the class was her last before her masters thesis, and while shed completed some small projects as an undergraduate, she had had no experience with fine furniture.  The 10 weeks would pose a steep learning curve, but by the end, Schoch had not only salvaged her mahogany, making a veneered top and undershelf, but learned a bit about welding and a lot about design.

Eventually, four students in the class would win regional awards. Over the years, some 450 students have taken Furniture Studio, and more than 50 projects have won awards in regional and national competitions.

But awards arent the key thing, Ochsner says early in the book. As students work with materials and tools, improvising as challenges arise, they acquire competence and confidence no paper exercise can offer. And as these students go on to careers in architecture, Ochsner writes, their hands-on experience informs their work.

To gather material for the book, Ochsner sat in the back of every class in winter quarter 2009, eventually winding up with more than 100 pages of notes. Along with chapters on the furniture and its people, Ochsner includes historical background of shop-based courses, profiles of four representative graduates of the program and implications for architectural education. Additionally, he includes an illustrated catalog of the best student projects, including a selection from the winter quarter 2010 studio, the first of the furniture studios taught by Associate Professor Kimo Griggs, who was appointed in 2008 to the position previously held by Vanags.






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