Wilsonart Student Chair Design Competition Celebrates 10 Years

June 2, 2014

Top designs, including this year’s winning “Infinite” concept, were featured at ICFF

The competition was steep as Wilsonart celebrated the 10th anniversary of its design scholarship program, which challenges students to design iconic chairs using Wilsonart Laminate.  

“We deliberated this year more than any other year due to the outpouring of talent,” said design historian and materials specialist Grace Jeffers, who helped conceive the program with Wilsonart in 1994. “The innovative applications of Wilsonart Laminate surfaces and the sheer caliber of design produced by these sophomores were astounding, and each and every one of these students and young design stars on the rise should be proud.”

Filling a need for more theoretical and hands-on design experiences, the annual program unfolds as a semester-long course, taught this year at the College of Architecture at the University of Houston by Jeffers and Professor Jeff Feng.

Students were taught about laminate, its history, technical capabilities, current market trends, and sustainability issues as well as the history of chairs as decorative art forms. This year’s theme was chosen as a celebration of the Wilson House, the late Ralph Wilson’s family home and one of the best residential examples of mid-century modern style in Texas.

The winning design comes from Jenny Trieu, whose “Infinite” concept epitomizes mid-century modernism through its unique structure, bold colors and mixing of materials. Composed of a plywood rib cage, layered first with veneer and then with Wilsonart Laminate, the chair flows continuously like an infinity symbol, artfully capturing the space within.

Trieu selected a Wilsonart Zebrawood laminate, which gives the effect of being made from a woodgrain surface without the inherent issues of crafting with genuine hardwood, and accented it with eye-catching Hollyberry and Black laminates to accentuate the design’s curving lines and sharp edges.

“The combination of a woodgrain and a bold, rich red as well as the illusion of mixing materials are what make the ‘Infinite’ chair the perfect example of mid-century modern,” said Natalia Smith, design manager for Wilsonart.

Trieu will receive a $1,000 scholarship. Five runners up were also rewarded with the chance to display their work at ICFF: Aaron McEuen (“Lowland”), Abizer Raja (“Strata”), Arturo Barrera (“Cora”), Carrah Kajiser (Satellite), and Paulina Seng (“Icon”), and John Proffitt (“Friendship”). 

The work by these students is a testament to the value of the program Wilsonart and Jeffers have devised and fine-tuned over the years. In the beginning, the competition asked that students only draw their ideas, while craftsmen handled construction. But the team, as well as the educators they collaborated with, quickly realized that in an age where popular 3D computer graphics and computer technology are pervasive, hands-on building provides both a heightened level of intimacy with the materials and a deeper satisfaction with the completed project.

Later, they began adding themes to each year’s competition, and asked students to name their final concepts, which has helped the students articulate the problems they explored, the solutions they found and their journey from design to creation.

The students’ ultimate goal is to literally stop someone in their tracks as they walk through the ICFF show floor or flip through the pages of a magazine.

“We love to see the students really take the chair competition theme and run with it like this year after year,” said Smith. “It’s rewarding to see Wilsonart Laminate used in such an innovative way.”

While not intended for sale, over the past decade several of the winning chairs have been sold to private collectors, and a number of alumni winners are today’s design influencers.

As a Rhode Island School of Design student, Charles Brill won the competition back in 2006. One year later, he co-founded the industrial design firm Rich Brilliant Willing, which was named among the “Top 40” designers by I.D. Magazine that very same year. Other success stories include Aodh O’Donnell, winner of the 2009 competition and a graduate of Philadelphia University who went on the work with Counsil Design, Karim Rashid, and Stilex, where she was just named their first in-house Director of Design.

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