Andris Vanags Biography

Andris (“Andy”) Vanags was Senior Lecturer Emeritus in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington College of Built Environments. He worked and taught there from 1969 until his retirement in 2009. He was teacher and mentor to generations of UW architecture students, and one of the driving forces behind the school's culture of Craft and Making.

Andris Vanags was born in Riga, Latvia, on August 24, 1942. As World War II swept through Europe, advancing Soviet troops forced his family to flee from Latvia in 1944. Andris, his brother, mother, and other relatives spent the remainder of the war as refugees in Germany. Meanwhile, his father and uncle were conscripted to the German army, captured by Soviet troops, and spent the latter part of World War II as prisoners of war.

After the end of the World War II, Andy’s family was reunited in Germany thanks to the efforts of the Red Cross. They spent the next 5 years living in UN sponsored Displaced Persons (“DP”) Camps, awaiting emigration. While life as a refugee in postwar Germany had many hardships, Andy enjoyed being close to his many cousins, aunts and uncles, who lived in the same camps. His family was finally able to emigrate to the United States in 1949, and settled in Brooklyn.

As a teenager, “Little Andy” began working as a carpenter for his uncles every summer, an experience that would profoundly shape his future. He graduated high school in Brooklyn in 1960. He spent one semester as a student at Pratt Institute. Andy flew from New York to Seattle on a student fare in 1961, curious to see the West coast of the US. He immediately fell in love with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and made Seattle his new home.

Soon after relocating to Seattle, Vanags found employment at Boeing, as a member of the team working on the Dyna-Soar space plane. During this time, he met his wife-to-be, Arija Lietuvietis at a Latvian masquerade ball. They were married in March of 1964. Andy worked at Boeing until his project was canceled in December 1964. After being laid off, he decided to continue his college education, and entered the University of Washington School of Art program in industrial design. He graduated with a BFA in Industrial Design from UW in 1968.

During his time as a UW student, Vanags used the shop facilities of the Architecture program in several courses. At the time, the shop was a dusty, low ceilinged space in the basement of Architecture Hall. Andy’s skill and enthusiasm earned him TA appointments, which led to a temporary staff position as shop assistant after his graduation. When shop director Berner Kirkebo resigned due to illness in April 1969, Vanags was asked to take over his position of shop manager. Thus, Andy would be gainfully employed when his son Peter was born in September of 1969.

At the urging of Professor Philip Theil, Andy began to teach a class on tools and materials in the shop. Despite his entry level position as a department staff member, Andy’s thirst for knowledge, paired with his natural teaching ability, fueled the growth of his influence and his course offerings. When Gould Hall opened in the early 1970s featuring larger wood and metal shop spaces and a classroom, he began to offer a growing variety of courses including “Materials and Processes,” “Wood Design,” “Light Frame Assemblies,” “Technological Foundations” (Arch 300 studio) and others.

Under Andy’s leadership, the unorthodox “cigarettes, coffee and sawdust” environment of the Architecture Shop was becoming a new center of practical pedagogy within the department. A movement of architecture students who would dream, then draw, then build, was forming among the scraps of wood, metal and tools that lined the walls of the shop.

During this period, Vanags also became a licensed contractor. Over the summer breaks he would exercise his carpentry skills, taking on design-build projects for residential clients in partnership with his UW colleague Barry Onouye.

In 1977, Vanags and Onouye brought this ethos into the School of Architecture, initiating the college's first design-build offering, “Playground Construction”; this course was offered during Spring quarter for the next decade. When the liability of playground-building became an issue, Barry and Andy redirected the design-build studio to other kinds of community service building projects. (After 1992, Steve Badanes took on this design-build studio and he continues to lead it today.)

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Vanags began to make connections with the growing number of studio furniture makers in the Puget Sound region. In 1984, he offered the Architecture Department's first furniture design and fabrication class, initially for only three credits. In 1989 the furniture class became a six-credit studio which Vanags, assisted by newly appointed shop manager Penny Maulden, taught for the next twenty years. By 1991 the furniture studio was offered to graduate students one quarter, and to senior undergraduates another quarter -- the pattern that continues today.

Over time, Andy’s staff position was upgraded to “Lecturer” and then “Senior Lecturer” as new job titles were created within the department, and as he began to receive awards and recognition for his teaching excellence.

Meanwhile, the quality of student work in the furniture studio was gaining regional and national recognition. Student pieces began receiving awards in regional professional furniture competitions, and in a national competition in 2004. Five student projects were included in the book “500 Chairs” published in 2008. The first twenty years of the University of Washington Furniture Studios were showcased in “Furniture Fest,” a retrospective exhibition in spring 2009. The history, pedagogy, and influence of the furniture studio, along with examples of more than fifty projects, were the focus of Professor Jeffrey Ochsner’s book “Furniture Studio: Materials, Craft, & Architecture” published in 2012.

During this period, Vanags also remained active with his summer projects, designing and building homes for clients in Oregon, Vermont and Colorado. His favorite students would receive a coveted invitation to spend the summer working alongside their mentor on these projects, participating in a complete residential design/build process.

Vanags retired from teaching in March 2009, after teaching his final furniture studio that Winter term. The furniture program continues under the leadership of Kimo Griggs and Penny Maulden.

Although some of the classes that Vanags created have changed with the introduction of digital tools and techniques, the culture of Craft and Making that Andy pioneered and exemplified remains a permanent part of the school where he spent the last 40 years of his professional life.

In Spring 2018, Vanags was honored with the College of Built Environments Distinguished Faculty Award for Lifetime Achievement.

During the years of his retirement, Vanags designed and built an island home for himself on Mystery Bay, near Port Townsend, Washington. He moved from Seattle to live there permanently in 2012.

In his later years, Andy struggled with a series of illnesses. Although he looked to be recovering from his most serious health issues, he was unable to overcome a severe secondary infection, and died in California on October 13, 2019.