For the 13th annual Wilsonart Challenges Student Chair Design Competition, students at San Diego State University (SDSU) designed unique seating elements that met the theme “Borders, Boundaries, and Mashups” using selections from the Wilsonart Laminate Collection. The winning chair and runners up were publicly displayed at Wilsonart’s booth at the 2017 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York.
The design challenge is a yearlong program, both a sponsored class and competition. Students learn how to design and build a chair, in addition to how to prepare for a major trade show. Wilsonart introduced this student challenge more than 10 years ago, making it the longest-running sponsored student design class in the U.S.
This year’s edition brought the competition to the Southeast for the first time. Professor Matthew Hebert and Grace Jeffers, design historian and program director for Wilsonart Challenges, developed the theme and framed the design process. “Borders, Boundaries, and Mashups is largely based on the region of San Diego,” Hebert said. “We wanted to get students to think about the diversity of San Diego in a broader sense: the landscape from ocean to desert, cultural diversity, economic diversity—think of Tijuana being right up against the border to the south and Orange County to the north. There are a range of different cultures coming together.”
Alison DeMartino, marketing communications director at Wilsonart, explained, “Interpreting ideas and emotions and personalizing them through design is a tremendous achievement, and this year’s students, once again, have created beautiful, transcending works of art. With a challenging theme and a multicultural environment like San Diego, the students have magnificently captured the many passions running throughout the country with dramatic chair designs that celebrate diversity and freedom.”
The winner of the 2017 competition, Matthew John Bacher, created “A Piece of Tlaltecuhtli.” His chair gives the impression of a still-life piece while representing a visual dialogue that explores the politics of cultural appropriation. Inspired by The Tlaltecuhtli Monolith, a massive monument found at the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City, Bacher created an incomplete picture that is meant to mirror the lack of accurate representation by appropriators.
“Laminate was the perfect material for this piece because Milano Rosso, the pattern he selected, mimics real stone,” Jeffers noted. “The chair itself is a statement about appropriation, and the use of Wilsonart surface material emphasizes this message. The judges unanimously agreed that this chair was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before and the story was smart and compelling.”
Hebert added, “It was a remarkably unanimous decision among the jury on the winner, which was striking but not terribly surprising. His piece was the most conceptually rich of the student projects that came out of [the challenge]. He took the idea of the Wilsonart surface and really ran with it, with a beguiling assembly of things that look like broken architectural elements. He’s a transplant from New York and is interested in the cultural appropriation that happens in San Diego. He has a tattoo and tattoo-artist background, so the material came out interesting graphically as well. As a teacher, that marriage of foreign concepts that [educators are] always hoping for came out in his piece.”
For his winning design, Bacher received a scholarship and an all-expense-paid trip to ICFF in New York to present the chair.