The paper below was delivered by Jeffrey Ochsner at the October 2009 meeting of the Regional Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.
Teaching Furniture Design at UW, 1989-2009: Craft, Making, and Lessons Toward Sustainability
In 1989, Senior Lecturer Andris (“Andy”) Vanags began teaching furniture (design and fabrication) studios in architecture program at the University of Washington. Over the next 20 years, students in these studios compiled a notable record of projects that regularly received awards in regional and even national competitions—close to 50 awards in two decades. Such recognition seems remarkable given that the furniture was designed and built in just ten weeks by architecture students, many of whom had little or no previous experience in furniture design (and some of whom have not even had previous experience with power tools and equipment).
To focus just on the appearance of the projects (or only on the awards), is to miss the core of the student experience, however, as it addressed materials and their appropriate use, discipline and craft, connections and detail, and fundamental understandings of durability, maintainability and permanence. Indeed, it can be argued that the central lessons of a furniture studio directly address both ethics and sustainability, as well as the process of translating design ideas, through the designers’ own hands, into objects in the real world.
Senior Lecturer Andy Vanags fully retired from teaching in March 2009. Thus, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the studios, and their place within Northwest traditions of craft and making.
Andy Vanags was born in Latvia, in 1942. Two years later his family fled to the west, and eventually came to the United States settling in Brooklyn, where Andy graduated from high school in 1960. During the summers he worked as a carpenter. After a term at Pratt Institute, he came to Seattle and soon found work as a member of the team working on the Dyna-Soar space plane at Boeing. Andy remained at Boeing through December 1964, then entered the UW program in industrial design. At the time the UW art school had developed strong programs in the fine arts, in the decorative arts or crafts, and in graphic design, industrial design and interiors. Andy's contemporaries in the school included painter/photographer Chuck Close, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, and glass artist Dale Chihuly. During school, Andy worked as an assistant in the Art School's shop, and he served as a teaching assistant in George Tsutakawa's "Design in Wood" class, and in Warren Hill's and Evert Sodergren's "Furniture Design" class. Andy completed his B.F.A. in September 1968, but continued to work in the art shop through early 1969, although his position was temporary. Thus, he readily accepted the offer of a permanent position in the architecture shop in April 1969.
Andy was appointed as shop manager, overseeing the shop and providing assistance to students on projects, but from his early years he taught shop-based classes. He also became a licensed general contractor and he began to take on design/build projects in the summers.
In 1972, the College's new building, Gould Hall, opened, including a 6000 square foot shop, with spaces for woodworking and metalworking, and a finish room that could also serve as a classroom. The shop facilities were incredibly forward-looking for the time. Just two years later, in 1974-75, Andy began to teach on a regular basis. His first regularly offered class was "Materials and Processes," a course that explored the nature, properties and appropriate use of a variety of architectural materials including wood, concrete, metals, and plastics. The lectures addressed materials beginning at the molecular or cellular level, and showed how their properties and performance derived from the underlying physics and chemistry or, in the case of wood, biology. The shop served as the laboratory with exercises addressing materials and their use. Given a permanent course number in 1976, Materials and Processes, Architecture 430, continues to be taught today.
Beginning in 1977, Andy co-taught "Playground Construction," a class he created with Lecturer Barry Onouye, who had joined the department faculty in 1969, and who primarily taught structures. Playground Construction was the department's first recurring design/build offering. In the late 1980s, when liability became an issue, Barry and Andy started taking on projects other than playgrounds. The department continues to offer design/build studios today, but after 1990 Andy and Barry passed the management of the design/build studio to Professor Steve Badanes, who began teaching in the department in 1989.
In 1983, Andy and Barry partnered again to create the "Technological Foundations Studio." Initially the studio focused on shop tool projects based on modification of characteristics of materials, leading to sub-assemblies, and finally an architectural project involving wood frame construction. In the early 1990s, the studio developed a stronger architectural focus, with a series of small design projects that were executed in scale models and drawings, teaching design, space, use, structural technology and construction. This course, commonly called "stick studio," continues to be offered today as the program's introductory studio for architecture undergraduates.
The same year, Andy began offering an advanced course titled "Light Frame Construction." This class drew on his own extensive knowledge of wood construction gained from his design/build projects, and presented students with the intricacies of wood construction not just in the Northwest, but elsewhere in the United States.
By the late 1970s, with Andy teaching a full course load, continuing reliance on students for staff support in the shop became unworkable, and funding was found for additional staff support. After a series of shrt term appointments, in 1988, Andy turned for assistance to Penny Maulden, a graduate of UW, who was a partner in a contracting and cabinetmaking shop, and who had experience in furniture design and construction. Initially Penny's appointment was temporary, but she soon became an integral member of the department as the shop manager and a key participant in the shop-based classes. Penny continues today serving as shop manager and as an occasional instructor.
Andy had always been interested in furniture making, and in the late 1970s and 1980s he responded to the growth of the studio furniture movement in the Puget Sound region. The studio furniture movement had emerged in the United States after World War II as a few individuals began to make custom furniture in small shops, in a sense rejecting or resisting the dominance of mass production in that era. Key early figures in the development of studio furniture were Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima and Sam Maloof, and, in the Northwest, Evert Sodergren. Their example inspired most of the furniture makers who followed.
In the late 1970s, studio furniture makers in Seattle had formed the Northwest Guild of Fine Woodworkers as a forum for discussion, socializing and to show their work. In June 1980 a spinoff group opened an exhibition space; called Northwest Fine Woodworking, they continue to operate a furniture gallery today. Andy never joined either group, but in the 1980s he worked with both to help bring leading furniture makers and woodworkers to the region for lectures and workshops. The shop space in Gould Hall was particularly suited to hosting the large number of people who wanted to attend. Between 1980 and 1987, the shop hosted nine workshops including furniture makers Peter Danko, Sam Maloof, James Krenov, and others. Workshops typically included an illustrated Friday evening lecture followed by two days of hands-on demonstrations in the shop.
By the early 1980s, Andy had begun to teach a three-credit class in furniture-making for the architecture students. Although some students created outstanding pieces, Andy soon realized that a three-credit class did not allow enough time for most students to take on sophisticated projects.
In January 1989, with Penny Maulden assisting in the shop, Andy secured approval for a six-credit furniture studio, which was first offered in spring quarter 1989. The studio was offered again in spring 1990 and 1991; beginning in 1992 the studio was offered twice annually--in winter for graduate students and in springfor undergraduates.
From the first, Andy recognized he would need to get the students to move quickly through design and into fabrication. Within a year or two, Andy established a standard studio schedule that allowed students to develop their designs rapidly, going from model scale to full-size mock-ups within the first few weeks. By the fifth week, students were prepared to purchase their final materials, and they would have nearly six weeks to fabricate their final projects, making detail decisions and refinements until the very end.
Students undertaking a furniture studio in effect “sign on” to the workload and intensity of the experience. Although studio meets officially 12 to 15 hours/week, students typically spend at least twice that working on their furniture projects in non-studio hours. Students who signed up for the studio were notified ahead of time that they were expected to arrive the very first day with at least two ideas shown in drawings and models at 3” = 1’-0”.
By the end of the first week the students were expected to produce revised drawings and models, and by the middle of the third week they would have made a full-scale mock-up (using inexpensive materials such as particle board and wood studs, though if metals were to be used the students would have begun to work with metal to develop skills such as welding or brazing and finishing). Another mock-up was due at the end of the fourth week. Through this process the students began to learn about the scale and character of their projects; they explore relationships of individual pieces; they learned about hierarchy and structure (particularly what makes something stable); and they also began to use the tools and equipment in the shop. Most projects changed rapidly over these weeks. For one thing, the students were learning a new scale. As architecture students they were familiar building design, so they often began their furniture projects with parts scaled to a building rather than to a piece of furniture.
From the earliest studios Andy involved professional studio furniture makers as reviewers. He had developed contacts in the furniture community over the previous two decades, so he invited local furniture makers to comment on the students' proposals. On a review afternoon, the guest made an illustrated presentation of his own his work, then reviewed the students' designs. The furniture makers had the expertise to comment knowledgeably on the students' projects, and their success as furniture makers give them immediate credibility as reviewers. Andy usually asked three different furniture makers in the first four weeks--one to review the final models, and one to review each of the mock-ups.
By the beginning of the fifth week the students' furniture designs were clearer and simpler—the logic of the parts had been revised and moved toward resolution. Although the focus was always on the project, the deeper lesson imparted by this phase was applicable to all design: good design typically results from an iterative process, in which initial solutions are refined by continuing exploration, testing, and revision. In the first weeks, the students had to "commit" to the design on which they were working because as they went along their big decisions could not be undone. They discovered what kinds of choices are made as any project develops, and they learned which decisions must be made early and which can be delayed.
By the fifth week, the students knew enough to purchase materials for their final projects. Over the twenty years of studio, an increasing number of students chose to do projects that included metal, but a majority of student projects were always made of wood, and usually the use of wood was a requirement.
Going to a dealer in hardwoods can be overwhelming at first—there are literally row upon row of boards sorted by species and size. Most students have an idea of the kind of wood they would like, but a particular board must still be chosen. Many students did “one-board projects”—that is, they build their designs from a single piece of wood. Using only one board not only makes a project coherent, but it also provides a discipline as it requires understanding the structure of wood, which means understanding the geometry of a tree (an elongated cone), how the geometry produces different patterns of grain (depending on how the wood was cut), and how the wood will change shape over time. For most species of wood and for most projects (particularly tables), a 4 inch board, usually plain sawn (flat cut) is ideal. The legs can be cut from the sides of the board; the center can be sawn lengthwise to produced two book-matched pieces of cathedral figure, or if cut in the 4 inch dimension vertical cut pieces. Chairs can be made using two, three or four inch boards, depending on the amount of splay or curvature of the pieces. (Of course, not all species of wood are available in the thicker dimensions.)
Before visiting the dealer, each student would draw up how the pieces of his or her design could be cut from a hypothetical board. Still, selecting just the right board is a combination of knowledge, perseverance, and, often, a little luck. Then, too, finding a particular piece of wood almost always leads to changes or refinements in the design to accommodate the specific characteristics of the piece, to incorporate or avoid flaws, or to take advantage of some unforeseen or unanticipated aspect of the board. The process is an iterative one that fosters an understanding of design as working within constraints; it teaches discipline and penalizes sloppiness. Embedded in the process is a fundamental respect for the material (and ultimately for nature itself)—one uses what one needs and does not waste, one uses each material appropriate to its properties.
Under Andy's direction, the students' focus has always been on making something that was built the right way, based on longstanding traditions. Wood and metal craft have developed over centuries, as designers and fabricators have sought to make furniture that is functional, beautiful and durable. Durability requires the students understand and accommodate the movement of their materials. Metal changes shape with temperature, wood with humidity. Wood expands and contracts much more in one direction than another. The students learned to keep these movements in mind as they designed their connections and decided how their pieces would be assembled.
Over the course of the quarter, Andy would do occasional lectures as the students approached new tasks or new decision points. His lectures typically addressed the safe use of each major piece of equipment, the use and design of joinery, working with veneers and making laminated pieces, and finishes and finishing.
In the finished project a substantial part of the effort will be invisible. For example, there will be many concealed joint structures where different parts intersect and intricate joint shapes mean that each joint will stand up though time. Students learn there is a deeper aesthetic here—not an aesthetic that depends on what will be seen, but instead, one that depends on knowing that the thing has been done right even if it will never be seen. The furniture that comes out of the UW studios may appear conservative to some, but the students who produce these pieces are not interested in fashion; their concerns address more profound values—materials, craft, lastingness.
Andy's approach to teaching always emphasized developing a clear and logical structural hierarchy. Many of the pieces of furniture made under Andy's supervision were highly articulated with each element distinct, yet at the same time each made sense only as part of the overall composition. Many of the pieces had floating cabinets, suspended drawers, simply supported tops. The articulation was a result of designing with an understanding of how each element works.
As the students build their pieces they come to understand the limits of design and the place of workmanship. In David Pye's book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Pye argued, “Design is what, for practical purposes, can be conveyed in words and by drawing; workmanship is what, for practical purposes, can not.” As the students learn to use tools and equipment, they discover that although the final result depends on judgment and skill, it depends most of all on the care that they exercise as they do the work.
Five to six weeks may seem a long time to complete the final project, but it always sped by with extraordinarily rapidity. Throughout these weeks Andy and Penny interacted with every student, sometimes demonstrating a process or technique, sometimes helping or advising, and sometimes cajoling a student who might be lagging or not giving the attention necessary.
It often seems surprising how long it takes to make all the parts that will go together to make one piece of furniture. Walking through the shop a week before the final review, one often wondered if any of the students would have a completed project—and yet, almost everyone did. In the last week the focus turned to assembly and finishing. Finishes were used to protect and maintain stability in the project. Students achieved a high level of finish through scraping and sanding rather than relying upon chemical finishes as often applied to commercial furniture. Under Andy's instruction, the students used clear finishes which reveal or emphasize the intrinsic character of the fine hardwoods of which their projects were made.
From the first, the final reviews were always celebrations. The pieces were nearly always complete and the quality of the work was always remarkably high. The final reviewers were usually the professional furniture makers who had served as critics early in the quarter. After the first few years, graduates who had previously taken a furniture studio were often included as well. And alumni often stopped by to see and celebrate the new projects. Over the years, furniture studio truly became a living tradition.
Students submitted projects from the furniture studios to the regional competition, "Table, Lamp and Chair," based here in Portland, in 1990, and won several top awards. This success began the tradition of annual submittals to competitions. After "Table, Lamp and Chair" ended in 1996, students began submitting furniture projects to "A Chair Affair," a juried show of work from the western United States organized by the Interior Designers of Idaho. Student projects from the furniture studios have consistently won awards at this show. In Spring 2004, students entered ten UW furniture studio projects in the Laguna Tools National Schools Competition held in Atlanta, placing second nationally, in a field made up largely of schools that teach furniture and woodworking. In 2008, Lark Books published 500 Chairs: Celebrating Traditional and Innovative Designs, a juried catalog of chairs by American furniture makers--five projects from the University of Washington furniture studios were included.
This level of recognition helped establish the expectation for a high level of performance in succeeding years. In the first few years, when there was a limited record of prior success, Andy and Penny spent more time cajoling the students with statements like, "You can do better." After a time, such statements were seldom necessary as Andy and Penny could simply point to past projects and achievements, and each year the new students would feel they were part of a tradition that they were expected to uphold and extend. Rarely did anything more need to be said--the understanding of the expectation was simply part of the culture of the studio.
Between 400 and 450 students took a furniture studio between 1989 and 2009. Perhaps two dozen have gone on to become furniture makers. The rest have pursued careers in architecture and related fields. Nonetheless, they have invariably characterized the studio as one of the most important courses they took in their academic careers. The knowledge they gain has addressed, structure, ergonomics, material properties and behavior, visual literacy, perception, skill acquisition, time and resource management, collaboration, design, craftsmanship, and even a little history. As skills are acquired and understanding grows the students see their projects become more sophisticated and more refined. Furniture studio offers students the challenge of design with nearly immediate feedback through fabrication--students see more clearly that design is an iterative process. The gain direct insight into the implications of design for fabrication as well as the implications of materials, processes and technology for design. Surprisingly, many students gain a new perspective on history, seeing it as a source of inspiration. And, they come to appreciate precedent because it can inform and improve their own work. The come to see tradition as a source and a benefit, not a burden.
In terms of sustainability, furniture studio fosters the long-term thinking that understands sound design as the best insurance of longevity and argues that longevity contributes more than anything else to an object’s sustainability. Making anything consumes and transforms resources. Making is thus an ethical concern and that places responsibility upon a designer. In the ten-week furniture studio, students produce a well-crafted piece of furniture that has the potential and the quality to serve generations of users, long beyond their own lives. The work is also evidence of the knowledge gained, the effort expended and the thought and care and collaboration put into its production. In this process, they have become more confident and capable designers.