California Seating

Student designers draw inspiration from nature and technology to create compelling new chair designs using laminate as their only medium.

06/22/2012 By Robert Nieminen

Wilsonart Challenges winning Torrey Chair by Kaii Tu The Torrey Chair by Kaii Tu Wilsonart Challeneges Wave Chair Wilsonart Challneges 8/4 chair by Hannah Quinn Wilsonart Challenges Laminate Chair by Steven Sanchez Wilsonart Challneges Seven Stumps Chair Wilsonart Challenges Linea Chair by Jeni Tu

High-pressure laminate probably isn’t the first material that comes to mind when you think of furniture design. In fact, it’s probably among the last. It’s not a medium you’d likely think of for your next art project either. Sure, it’s durable and there are a lot of decorative finishes to work with, but it’s hardly what you’d consider a good raw material for sculpting.

Unless, of course, you’re a student who just entered the “Wilsonart Challenges …” design scholarship competition. This annual program, now in its eighth year, challenges students at a designated design school to create a unique chair that uses Wilsonart laminate to answer a specific design challenge.

Last winter, the folks at Wilsonart selected the Furniture Design Department at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in Oakland, Calif., to host the challenge. The competition is, in reality, a semester-long course taught by professor Russell Baldon, and design historian and materials specialist (and I&S blogger), Grace Jeffers. The students were taught about laminate—including its history, technical capabilities, current market trends and sustainability issues—as well as the history of chairs as decorative art forms.

This year’s theme asked students to immerse themselves in the ethos of California; to examine both the state’s contribution to the man-made world and the unique phenomena of its nature. Special consideration was given to the question, “What is California design?” Since the mid-century, California has and continues to pioneer seminal design solutions, and students attempted to answer the question, “How can today’s students be more aware of this design legacy?”

“One thing that amazes us is how each school’s unique culture and approach to design unfold with the project,” explains Alison DeMartino, Wilsonart’s director of marketing communications. “California College of the Arts was no exception, as their ever-merging undercurrents of design, craft and art are predominant.”

As you are about to discover, laminate isn’t just for decorative surfacing anymore. The following group of CCA students are keenly aware of the design legacy that has been passed onto them, and are busy shaping their own to pass down to those who follow.

kaii tu | torrey chair
Officially pronounced the winner of the “Wilsonart Challenges …” competition at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in May, Kaii Tu’s Torrey Chair features a fragmented geometry, rendered from multiple perspective points. Seemingly random angles of different colors of wood grain laminate are used to simultaneously sculpt and paint the form.

Laminate cannot be formed into a compound shape—although it is flexible, it can bend in only one direction, preventing the creation of curvaceous forms. The engineering Tu applied to his design defies this rule, and artfully demonstrates that an undulating, three-dimensional form can be made out of high-pressure laminate. He used a total of 8 colors and 40 separate hand-cut pieces of laminate to create the chair.

“Torrey is a place to rest for a while, before moving on with our busy lives. It is an embrace of dueling currents in California culture: nature and technology,” says Tu. “Windswept coastal pines are the point of departure; their forms, abstracted in the pixilated manner of computer-aided design, create a perch with multiple sitting and leaning options. Wilsonart wood grain laminate fit perfectly in this meeting of natural and engineered. The material—with its vast variety of colors and grain patterns—‘paints’ light and shadow across the facets. The laminate helps not to recreate nature, but to re-present it, turning its ‘faux’ qualities into an asset.”

Tu is currently working as a designer across disciplines and industries, from furniture to interactive experiences to household products you can find on supermarket shelves today. What unites his diverse designs is a blending of analytical thinking and craft, supported by an investigation into the histories and contextual narratives behind objects and actions alike. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in visual and environmental studies, and continued his studies at Design Academy Eindhoven and California College of the Arts.

noah hillis | the wave chair
“The inspiration for The Wave Chair came from the Santa Monica, California beaches, a place where I would often go to relax and appreciate the surrounding environment,” explains Hillis. “Three defining aspects of the chair are directly inspired by the visual cues that repeatedly presented themselves while hanging out on the Pacific Coast.”

He says the decorative stringers which run across the left-hand side of the chair were inspired by the stringers of surfboards. The shape of the chair was influenced by the crashing waves of the ocean and the arm structure resembles the modern architecture typical of the coast.

hannah quinn | 8/4
Familiar, yet unexpected, organized but fun—look a little closer and Hannah Quinn’s 8/4 chair just might surprise you. What appears to be a tidy pile of boards at the lumberyard is actually trompe l’oeil—an illusion of depth. The use of wood grain laminate creates the sense of a three-dimensional stack of lumber.

“Real boards only wish they were finished that beautifully,” Quinn quips. “The name 8/4 [pronounced
eight-quarter] is a standard wood thickness and a common term in lumberyards. From a distance this chair may look like a simple stack of 8/4 maple lumber, but as you approach it the graphic elements overwhelm the natural ones.”

This is no rough-hewn timber—the exact lines of the edges and the flawless finish demonstrate precision, giving the piece an ironic, playful tone. 

steve sanchez | laminate chair
The form of this chair is simply titled Laminate Chair, and it is an incongruous experiment in construction.

“Structure to me is something to be celebrated in conjunction with form, not hidden by it, and laminate is a covering,” notes Sanchez. “This chair is an exploration of the tension between the laminate surface and the structure of the chair, and represents an effort to reveal a truth in materials.”

“My interest in making started with structure, specifically its form. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from tackling a problem and creating an alternate solution, similar to forming an opinion,” he adds. “I’m interested in investigating human behavior and objects, together and separately.”

jeni tu | linea
The Linea Chair is inspired by the vibrant, visually arresting lines found in Los Angeles, from twisting overpasses to the gestural sensuality of the Getty Center to the word paintings of quintessential L.A. artist, Ed Ruscha. Linea is an investigation into how a two-dimensional ribbon of material, continuous and unbroken, can be transformed into a three-dimensional form. At the same time, it explores the unique material possibilities of laminate.

Made from bent steel powder coated in a neon red-orange evoking taillights on the freeway, Linea is covered in Wilsonart’s Montana Walnut, a nod to L.A.’s storied mid-century design heritage.

rosalie wild | seven stumps
The Seven Stumps is a collection of interlocking stools which combine to become a larger seating environment. Mimicking a grove of trees, the varying heights and diameters of the seats celebrate natural diversity, in opposition to the homogeneity of manufactured goods. The stools can interlock in a multitude of playful arrangements.

Wilsonart laminate and edge banding in two different hues highlight laminate as a surfacing material and create subtle visual depth, according to Wild.


These stunning chair creations were on display at the Interiors & Sources Materials Pavilion at NeoCon (#8-3130) at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, as well as at the ICFF show in New York. For more information, visit


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