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Happenings: Head of the Class

April 20, 2009

More than a student design scholarship program, the Wilsonart Challenges competition is a class that not only informs, but inspires the best in innovative chair design.

Manufacturers of materials have a need for design that utilizes their material. This fact exists for several reasons. If you manufacture material, what is the best way to present it? Showing the patterns of a material is one way, but in today’s design world very few are interested in mere pattern because it limits the appeal and versatility of the product. Most designers want to be shown new ways in which to use the material.

It is for this reason that Wilsonart sponsors the Wilsonart® Challenges … student design scholarship program to foster the careers of emerging furniture designers in North America. Each year, this competition challenges students at a designated design school to create a unique chair that incorporates the iconic shape of the Wilsonart Laminate sample chip.

Wilsonart Challenges … is, for brevity’s sake, a student design competition for a scholarship. But it is really so much more. In 2008, Wilsonart selected the industrial design department at the University of Philadelphia to participate in the program. The competition is actually a semester-long course taught by professors Josh Owen, an accomplished industrial designer, Jason Lempieri, an architect, and Grace Jeffers, design historian and materials specialist working as a Wilsonart representative.

The students were taught about laminate; its history, technical capabilities, current market trends, and sustainability issues as well as the history of chairs as a decorative arts form. Throughout the course of a semester, concepts were generated, discussed and refined through as series of exercises and critiques.

This year, Wilsonart named Aodh O Donnell as the winner of its 2009 Wilsonart Challenges … student design competition. O Donnell’s winning entry, the “Armadillo Chair,” adapts a simple shape into new dimensions. “My goal in designing the Armadillo Chair was to utilize laminate in an unconventional manner to create intrigue and curiosity,” says O Donnell. “This chair celebrates the strength and durability of Wilsonart laminate by relating them to the armored shell of an armadillo. The Armadillo Chair creates an inviting texture through the process of shingling laminate over a curvilinear form. The chair explores the possibilities of creating a new experience in the interaction between people and laminate.”

O Donnell was a sophomore in the industrial design department at Philadelphia University, and he is the youngest winner to ever achieve this honor. The award-winning entry and five runners-up entries will be displayed during ICFF as the centerpiece of the Wilsonart booth (No. 2248).

The concept for the competition originated in 2002 when Wilsonart Laminate’s advertising agency designed an ad that would run in the May issues of design trade magazines, in tandem with the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York City. Wilsonart had been participating in the show for a few years already and the agency thought to link the ad with the show by featuring a modern-looking chair, just as the ICFF graphic standard features a different chair debuting at the show that year. The agency invented a cantilevered chair and placed it in a stark white environment with a model near the chair. Shortly after the ad was released the switchboard began to light up. Apparently the graphic designers had invented a make-believe chair that in real-life could never be built or ever used for sitting. Designers everywhere pointed this out to the company and offered to design and build a real chair for the following year’s ad: and a new idea was born.

In the past five years, Wilsonart has worked with Parsons School of Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Savannah College of Art and Design, California State University Long Beach and the current participator, Philadelphia University. Schools are chosen because they have a rigorous chair design class and a history of building.

Each student is responsible for building their own chair. This factor has been crucial because a design may look like a winner on a piece of paper, but the proof is in the construction. The final day of class culminates in a juried review of all the students’ chairs, and the winner is announced. The jury has included Ron Gagnon, VP of marketing and design at Wilsonart, and distinguished magazine editors such as Kristi Cameron from Metropolis, Riley Johndonnel from Surface, and Mike Stanley, publisher of Interiors & Sources.

Each year this experience has served to launch the career of the winning design student, and historically, they have received considerable attention from the design press and even job offers from top companies. Given the impressive entries this year, the same good fortune should hold true for this year’s participants.

Aodh O Donnell
Armadillo Chair
Winner “My goal in designing the Armadillo Chair was to utilize laminate in an unconventional manner to create intrigue and curiosity,” says O Donnell. “This chair celebrates the strength and durability of Wilsonart laminate by relating them to the armored shell of an armadillo.

The Armadillo Chair creates an inviting texture through the process of shingling laminate over a curvilinear form. The chair explores the possibilities of creating a new experience in the interaction between people and laminate.”

Julianne Magliaro
Imperial Chair
Runner-up Julianne Magliaro’s designs are heavily influenced by patterns. “The laminate chip latticework of the Imperial Chair symbolizes Wilsonart’s distributors working together to form a uniform corporation. This chair combines the traditional design of the Qing Dynasty from China and the modern technology of CNC routing to form the exquisite pattern of the laminate chips,” she explains.
Jeffrey Steel
Array Chair
Runner-up “The Array Chair presents a dynamic visual transformation of color and form through the illusion of movement. This chair is meant to symbolize the chip on the chip chain itself,” says Steel. “By connecting the individual planes in the center it gives the illusion that they are floating or simply leaning against one another, which make the onlooker question what’s holding it together.”
Geoff Quinter
Diner Chair
Runner-up “The laminated kitchen table functioned as the hub of domestic life in the 1950s. This icon of American culture brought the nuclear family together at meals, hosted poker games, and served as a desk for the homework assignments of a generation,” explains Quinter. “The Diner Chair not only embodies this classic aesthetic, but elicits a visceral connection between the observer and the time period. A self contained juxtaposition, the Diner Chair belies laminate’s past, and future applications.”
Dan Wothers
Xpress Chair
Runner-up “In the field of industrial design, I have not found a profession, but a definition of what I have always tried to do,” says Wothers. “The joy I get from designing comes from finding the beauty and balance hidden within a design. Xpress is the physical manifestation of a moment within Wilsonart’s fast, efficient, and patented laminate production process.”
Alyward Omoding
Makuu Chair
Runner-up “I didn’t want to just bring culture from my country [Kenya], so I decided to choose one of the seven symbols of Kwanza, the mkeka, which represents an African saying that ‘no matter how high a house is built, it must stand on something.’ This reflects to the laminate which is the foundation of Wilsonart; and by weaving laminate, I am pushing the limits of the material and giving intricate surface to my chair,” says Omoding.

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