The University of Detroit organizes its design curriculum in 3 parts: The first and second years deal with design fundamentals, introduce basic building types and design methodology. The third and forth years are vertical studios where students can choose studios based on their interests in special topics, building types, or teaching style. The fifth year is typically given to a thesis project. The vertical studios are 16 weeks. I break the 16 weeks into two parts: a 4 week a warm-up exercise and a 12 week in-depth project. The purpose of the warm-up exercise is to start off the semester with the right level of intensity and to provide the students with a clearly defined problem with a simple program that challenges them to think differently. I have found that designing and making a chair works quite well for this purpose.
Over the years I have proposed many versions of the chair project: a chair for a friend, a chair for a place, a chair that can be assembled by someone else in less than 10 minutes with no instruction. In addition to a “theme” I also insist on the chair being made from a specific type of material and a particular quantity. The primary material is always a cheap kind of common wood (SPF 2 x 4), fabric and then something else. I also define how the materials can be used. For example the fabric must be used in tension. The third material is an unusual material, whose purpose is solely to throw them off.
The chairs are not intended to be fine pieces of craftsmanship, though attention to craftsmanship is required. Rather, the purpose of the chairs is to force students to understand a design problem, develop a concept that responds to the theme and makes use of the materials, and then to build it. This exercise gives them the chance to test their ideas, full scale in a limited time. This is rarely possible with building design. But the experience changes their frame of reference. So that when they begin their 12 week project, they are more likely to think about more than just plan and form, but also about how it will be made, giving due consideration to materials and methods of construction.
It’s a popular project. Students enjoy the intensity, the oddness of the problem, and the chance to build something. The key to the success of the project is to remember that it is a warm-up exercise: its purpose is to set the tone for the studio.