Furniture Design Production I

Community Partner Organization: Lighthouse Community Charter School: www.lighthousecharter.org

CCA Faculty Leader: Russell Baldon, Furniture

Outside Expert: Justin Champaign of Coalesse: www.coalesse.com

Goal: Create functional, attractive, and affordable tables for Lighthouse’s new K–12 library

Course blog: Visit the course-specific blog: ccafurnitureproduction1.wordpress.com

Do you remember your grade-school library? Probably fondly. Do you remember the furniture? Probably not at all.

This course set out to change that, for at least a few kids, at Lighthouse Community Charter School. Furniture chair Russell Baldon had wanted to work with Lighthouse for years, knowing that its predominantly inner-city Latino students would benefit tremendously from exposure to the design world. Even before he knew about ENGAGE at CCA's impending launch, he'd already been in touch with Lighthouse's director of development and with Justin Champaign, an industrial designer at the furniture firm Coalesse, about some sort of collaboration. (Champaign is also a CCA Furniture 2007 alum.) "When I heard the rumor that ENGAGE was coming," Baldon says, "I saw this course as a natural fit."

The process of designing new library tables for Lighthouse began with the 12 CCA students independently observing and documenting people's reading and studying behaviors in libraries and public spaces. They also visited the studios of several local artists, including Paul Discoe of Joinery Structures, Michael Goldin of Swerve Co., and John Lewis of John Lewis Glass Studio.

Combining insights, recommendations, and inspirations from these distinguished designers with their own observations, the students proceeded to conceive their individual visions and create full-size prototypes. They presented the prototypes at a formal critique attended by classmates, professors, and Coalesse staff in addition to a number of specially invited engineers and designers. The top six table designs were displayed at a public reception at the Steelcase showroom in San Francisco, and finally two designs were chosen to be manufactured. In the end, 20 tables will be donated to Lighthouse's new library.

"Each student was able to talk and interact directly with a vital group of designers," says Baldon, "and get a wide range of responses to their initial design briefs. It clearly established what the 'bar' is when you're pitching to a firm like Coalesse." Student Joseph Thomas (Sculpture/Furniture 2012) agrees: "My starting points were my interest in woodworking and my desire to find and correct impracticalities in furniture we take for granted as practical. I saw this as especially important in a library setting. Working with professional designers allowed me to hear many different opinions on how to make my project more affordable and more practical. With their advice, the nuts and bolts of my design changed considerably. The biggest challenge was when it was time to find manufacturers to bid on the construction of our designs.

"All of us worked on our own individual projects, but the group continued its discussions of everybody's projects beyond the critiques. The Furniture Program has a very collaborative atmosphere, everyone constantly exchanging ideas and techniques. Even though we were all more or less in competition, this helpful spirit continued throughout the semester.

"Professionally, this experience has made me more adept at collaborating with others. Even if I'm not entirely sure how someone else's field functions, I'm now confident that I can step into it, communicate, learn how things work, and make things happen. And personally, this course bolstered my work ethic more than any I've ever taken. It helped me learn where and when to put effort in, and when to make sacrifices, all with an end goal in view, which wouldn't have happened if we'd been working on hypothetical projects."

Baldon is gratified to know how much understanding his students gained with respect to what it takes to pursue a production object from concept to research, engineering, pricing, and outsourcing. He admits that it's an immense body of knowledge to cover in a single semester, but having a real client and the guidance and expertise of so many professionals made the experience a fruitful one. Lighthouse, for their part, could not be happier with the results.

Excerpted from All Hands on Deck by Samathan Braman.