Last year, Little Black Pearl, a community arts center in Hyde Park launched a charter school called the Options Laboratory, offering an arts and technology-based curriculum for young folks that have had trouble succeeding in traditional educational environments.  They are also running a series of after-school programs, including a poetry class and a woodshop experience.  Meshed together, under the auspices of a grant won by local arts education non-profit Urban Gateways, the program was named WordsWood.  On Thursday afternoons, a crew of nine young men would be studying poetry with local writer Avery Young, and on Fridays, they would be working on designing and building some chairs with me.  

I started out the curriculum with a simple exercise: measuring our own bodies and a bunch of different chairs.  The idea was to engage the students in realizing that there are reasons behind the way things are in the world, on a meta-level -- why chairs are the height they are, why they are the width they are, why doorknobs are the size they are, etc. -- and work on the practical skills of reading a tape measure, making readable sketches, and translating real-world data into a visual form.  We discussed different kinds of drawings -- elevations, plans, and sections, and got familiar with the dimensions of our world.

The modern wing of Little Black Pearl arts center.

The next week we saw the excellent documentary Objectified, by design thinker Gary Hustwit.  This movie introduced the students to the greater world of industrial design, and included a lot of examples of non-traditional chair forms made with non-traditional materials.  It reminded me of the silos that we, as designers, can find ourselves in.  It is easy to self-segregate, to believe strongly in the cult of what we are doing, and forget that there are vast swaths of the world that don't understand or care about what we do.  Many of the chairs highlighted in that movie, considered modern classics by trained designers, were summarily dismissed by my students.  And, try as I might, I didn't have a lot of valid rebuttals for their points.  They can look alien, no matter how well they work.  Many modern celebrity designers look and act like clowns, and they don't know how to speak about their work in normal, coherent way.  

Learning about ergonomics.
Once we had established some facts about ergonomics, examined precedents, and learned about the craft of design, we started brainstorming about the story we wanted to tell with our chair.  We started with the name of their school: Options Laboratory.  With options as a jumping-off point, they started to think about a chair that could be used in multiple ways.  Eventually, they came to an idea for a one-armed chair, with the arm on mirrored sides so that individual chairs could be pushed together to create a larger unit.  The materials, too, began to tell a story -- wood for strength, paper to represent their writing and scholarship.

Figuring out our story.
In the following weeks, we learned the basic power tools in the shop -- chop saw, table saw, circular saw, and hand drills.  I salvaged heaps of cardboard, and made a bunch of wheatpaste to laminate into cardboard lumber.  Due to warming weather, Friday afternoons, and the waning of the school year, attendance fell off some, which made it hard for us to finish all the chairs we originally intended to make.  However, with some valiant late efforts, we managed one prototype, the arm-less middle chair of the unit.  

Rosario learning the table saw. We cut pink foam because if it kicks back, it won't break a rib.
A relaxed lounger, the Options Chair has two plywood sides, braced apart by four plywood strips.  Those strips serve as an armature for a laminated cardboard seating surface, cut down and smooth as suede.  While this prototype is a little rough, we would hope to dowel the screw heads, sand, and finish the final versions.

The Options Chair.
Side view.

Back, where you can see how the cardboard notches into the plywood frame.

Detail of cardboard and plywood joint.
Options Lab chair, modeled by Sam.

Alongside the chair, we also learned to make some picture frames for matted posters of the student's poems.  The students learned how to cut a rabbet on the table saw, set up stops on the chop saw to manufacture pieces of the same length, and check for square by measuring diagonals. We used various scraps from around the shop, making many-colored frames from old flooring, redwood furniture chunks, and window frames.  

Poem frames.

All in all, it was great fun, and hopefully these young men will slip into the summer with a few skills and a different perspective on the objects of our world . . . .