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Wilsonart Student Design Competition winners will change the way you look at laminate

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Plastics on TreeHugger? Yes, if they are a good alternative to using endangered trees and virgin forests.

Usually, at this time of year, the design world is hanging out in New York City for Design Week and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. I used to go every year and cover it, and would always admire the big booth in the center showing the winners in the Wilsonart Student Design Challenge:

Wilsonart, a world leading creator of beautiful engineered surfaces, developed the year-long program, which is both a sponsored class and a competition. Students learn how to design and build a one-of-a- kind chair, as well as how to prepare for a major trade show. Wilsonart introduced the program more than a decade ago, making it the longest-running sponsored student design class in the U.S.

I may have admired the student work, but I never wrote about it; at the time, I wasn’t convinced that plastic laminate was exactly TreeHugger correct, and would tend to promote designs made with natural woods instead.

Grace JeffersLloyd Alter/ Grace Jeffers presenting/CC BY 2.0

Then I met Grace Jeffers, who taught me a lot about wood, and how trees may be a renewable resource, but forests are not: “Yes, we cut down trees, replant them, they grow, and in this way wood is a renewable resource. But by cutting down trees, we are destroying forests and their unique, unquantifiable ecosystems; therefore, a forest cannot be renewable.” Of course, we still love wood and promote wood construction, but that wood comes from sustainably managed forests that are more like plantations, a very different material from what you often see in furniture.

Jeffers tells architects and designers that they must ask three questions every time they specify wood:

  • What is this wood’s conservation status?
  • From where did this wood originate?
  • What is the state of the forest from which the wood was harvested?

My attitude toward plastic laminate changed as I learned about how much of our wood used in furniture comes from badly managed forests and endangered species of trees, and that perhaps plastic laminate was actually a good thing, letting designers get creative and build useful and beautiful things without solid rare or endangered woods and fancy veneers. (Plastic laminates are also made up of thin layers of certified paper and resin, which is why it is still my favorite kitchen counter.) I also note that in these pandemic times, having furniture that you can wipe down and clean like you might a kitchen counter makes a lot of sense.

Grace Jeffers manages the Wilsonart Student Design Challenge, and a few years ago invited me on to the Jury. I also teach Sustainable Design at Ryerson University of Interior Design, so I encouraged them to go international with the competition and come to Toronto. So all of my conflicts of interest are declared here: I was a juror and many of these students took my course. Part of the challenge also was to learn “how to prepare for a major trade show” which is no small matter for designers, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they didn’t get to hang out at the Javits. Being on TreeHugger isn’t quite the same thing, but here it is.

Winner: The Not Loveseat, Amy Yan

The not loveseat© The not loveseat/ Amy Tam

Amy Yan is a 3rd year interior design student whose passions lie at the intersection of design and storytelling. “The purpose of design is to elicit an emotional response,” Yan noted. “Design conveys a narrative, and then in turn, that narrative is able to shape the way we see the world.” Yan shares that a family separation occurred during the design process of her chair, and that her final design also holds layers of that personal narrative.

I really liked the story she told here. “The curved seat back appears to be under tension, as though being stretched apart by the splitting volume that make up the two seats of the chair.”

Runners-up: WILD, Brittany Boudreau

WILD, Brittany Boudreau© WILD, Brittany Boudreau

One day, sitting in a laundromat/café in Reykjavik, Iceland, Brittany Boudreau had an epiphany; she decided to quit her job as a hospital worker and pursue a degree in design. While most people don’t typically desire to sit in a laundromat, Boudreau realized that the design of that particular space was so pleasant she actually wanted to be there. The idea of designing spaces that make people feel good set her life on a different trajectory. She is now exploring the fun, colorful and playful side of design.

Anyone who has an epiphany in a laundromat deserves a prize, even for “a contemporary twist on the toad stool; it explores the contrasting relationship between life and death….Similarly, laminate is mostly made of paper; hence, a tree dies and is reborn as laminate.”

STANCE, Meredith Davis

STANCE, Meredith Davis© STANCE, Meredith Davis

Meredith Davis wanted to make a stationary chair that appears dynamic and the playful yet profoundly elegant STANCE is her solution. STANCE succeeds in bringing life to a flat material without bending the plane. The form of the chair is inspired by a four-legged animal and is designed to create a natural sense of movement. The chair is composed of only three pieces, creating a visual balance of solids and voids by playing with curves and straight edges.

I had a bit of trouble with this at first, thinking it looked like a sculpture I had seen somewhere. But then I always quote Picasso’s “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” which he stole from T.S. Eliot and which Le Corbusier stole from Picasso. And Meredith says she “she sees design as playful means to bring a spark of fun to our everyday lives,” an attitude I have always appreciated.

PARADOX, Monica Beckett

PARADOX, Monica Beckett© PARADOX, Monica Beckett

Monica Beckett calls herself a “renovation orphan” because she grew up in an 1870’s house that was in a perpetual state of deconstruction and reconstruction. In 2017, she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Ottawa but after art school she was still left with an unresolved feeling. A degree in Interior Design, with its practical application to the real world, is giving her the skills to navigate the problems and constraints of real world. In essence, she is learning to finish the renovation her parents were unable to complete.

TreeHugger readers will remember that we love Transformer Furniture, which serves more than one function. Monica’s chair actually changes from standard chair height to bar stool height simply by turning it over. the shape of it was also inspired by a cocktail jigger. It’s also really clever, how the four curved pieces fasten together.

BALANCING ACT, Alice Sills

BALANCING ACT, Alice Sills© BALANCING ACT, Alice Sills

Growing up in the smaller cities of Guelph and Barrie in southern Ontario, Alice Sills had an opportunity to explore both the busy cosmopolitan center of Toronto and the quiet solitude of the forests and lakes of the province. She loves exploring the dichotomy of these two worlds and subsequently became very interested in understanding design style.

TreeHugger’s Katherine Martinko, who grew up in the forest by a lake, will laugh at that description of Guelph and Barrie. But I really found this chair surprisingly comfortable and attractive.”Viewed from the front, the forms create the large seat and armrest of the chair, while the side profile affords a clean-lined, geometric composition, with an angled profile that offers a sightline through the chair itself.”

FRENCH KISS, Ryan Anning

FRENCH KISS,Ryan Anning© FRENCH KISS,Ryan Anning

While pursuing an acting career, Ryan Anning had the opportunity to work on the interior design of a small house for a friend. Through this experience, he began to develop an understanding for how the design of interior spaces impacts the way people feel and decided that this was what he wanted to do.

I had a bit of trouble with this one at first; one of the rules is that it has to actually has to work as a chair. But I did like the story:

FRENCH KISS is a playful commentary on the history of art and design. The French curve is the artistic tool which made the Baroque, Rococo and Art Nouveau styles possible. In an homage to the great pop artist Claes Oldenburg, the tool itself becomes the subject matter in monumental scale.

The technical people were also really impressed with the quality of the work; it’s really hard to make laminate do all these curves in tight spaces. And hey, he was a star in my Sustainable Design class last year.

Students in chair competitionStudents in chair competition/ Photo by Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The number of runners-up depends is based on how many chairs can be set up in a 20 x 20 booth at ICFF in the Javits, but this year’s entries were all really interesting, it was a really tough choice to narrow it down. After a few years of this, my attitude toward plastic laminate has really changed; These designers are doing amazing things with just plywood and a thin layer of plastic laminate, reinventing the stuff. Congratulations to these students at Ryerson University School of Interior Design (and I think a few from other courses) and of course, to Grace Jeffers and Wilsonart.

Wilsonart Student Design Competition winners will change the way you look at laminate

Plastics on TreeHugger? Yes, if they are a good alternative to using endangered trees and virgin forests.

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