Submitted: by Ken Rohrer Lesson Plan: History of furniture and design Grade Level: Grades 10-12, Also see Funktafying Furniture Design below
The study of furniture design can begin with the mural below. The mural includes the history of furniture making from the 1800's. This mural is located in the furniture capital of the world, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This mural is composed of five sections and each represents a group of people significant to the furniture industry. From left to right: These figures depict artisans from the late 1800's to the turn of the century. The man in the left foreground is a carver working on a chair. The man standing is designing and drawing a Berkey bedstead slated for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He is the figure looking left toward the future. The chair in the foreground is a Renaissance Revival parlor chair.
History of Furniture design
The History of the Furniture Industry in Western Michigan, by Ed Wong-Ligda, 1993, 11' x 30.' Photo by Ken Rohrer. Click on the image for full size.
Most people consider Grand Rapids, Michigan the furniture capital of the world.
The next group of people to the right depicts a group of furniture makers from the 1920's. The woman holding the Furniture City flag is the Furniture Goddess, a popular advertising figure at the time. The maid is a low wage worker serving the industry and looking toward the future for hope. The man in the butler's uniform is a personification of the Market who serves up furniture on a reflective silver tray to a new buyer. Although the seated figure studies the miniature, he introduces the future by sitting on an American Seating metal folding chair.
The last group of people on the right: This is a work force from the forties and fifties. They are painted brighter and symbolize the future. Three workers are excited about the future and are set around a Steelcase Multiple Fifteen Desk. A Herman Miller Eames Molded Plywood Chair is being touted to them by a more contemporary man. The girl listening on the desk holds a school key representing integration. She pays respect to her ancestors by looking back. The background shows an increasingly modern downtown.
Evolution of the Chair
Chairs from the 1800's were very ornate (see left picture above) but weren't all that comfortable. As mentioned above, chairs in those days were hand crafted and were made to last for a very long time. However, these chairs were not ergonomic and had no lumbar support for the back. In the middle picture above you see that chairs became very simplified in design in the 19560's and 60's. Although this chair has wheels, it does not have arm rests and the curve on the chair is too high to provide lumbar support for the back. The chair at right above was made with ergonomics and design in mind. Much of the chair is made with plastic but the seat and back are made with a mesh so that there is air movement around the body as it sits. The curves on the chair are made so that a human can sit for long periods in this chair without getting uncomfortable. Humans today sit in chairs more then they ever have in history so ergonomics is important. The chair on the right above is a Herman Miller Posture Fit Pellicle Tuxedo Aeron Chair designed by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick. It is said that when office workers leave their jobs, they miss their Aeron chairs the most.
The furniture above is called a Marshmallow Sofa. This was designed in 2000 by George Nelson of Herman Miller For the Home. As you can see, the sofa is a modernistic art form. Although it is not ergonomic, it is comfortable as long as you don't sit on the ends. The problem with designing furniture like this is that it is not mainstream furniture and would not fit well with most home decor. (Photos by Ken Rohrer)
While studying furniture history, you can copy and pass out the furniture cards (Click on the image on the left to see the cards and to print.) These cards are trading cards passed out by Furniture City at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are several ideas that can be done with these cards. One idea is to seat students in groups and hand them each a card. They memorize the text on the card (or ad lib a little) and then read to the class. They should each have one prop with them. For example, the 14 year old Lugger could have a red dolly and the Ripper could have a circular saw blade.
Another idea is to have each group of eight students read their cards to each other and discuss: Which card would you have rather had? Why? How do you think all these positions have changed over the years? How do you think they are now? There is a card missing. Which one do you think it is? (Furniture Designer) What is the difference between a designer and decorator?
Furniture of the present and future
Most people don't realize the work that goes into furniture design. Not only do designers have to design something pleasing to the eye, they have to design something that is ergonomic and is comfortable for the human body. Most furniture companies build prototypes of their furniture and then see how it fits with the human body. Below you see how the human body sits in various chairs from ergonomic to flat.
Actual humans participate in the ergonomic design of the chair. Computers and health professionals evaluate the height, shape, and features of a chair to determine the best ergonomic comfort level. As seen in the image on the left, the height of the computer monitor and table is also considered. Chairs that can be adjusted for each person are preferable. Taller people will need higher desks and chairs. Chairs of the future will be all about ergonomics. The challenge is how to incorporate good design and ergonomics.
The Chair of the Future
While I was visiting the Herman Miller Exhibit, I was able to see a prototype of the chair of the future (See the picture at left. Click on the image for full size). This chair began being mass produced in 2010 when they finished testing. The Embody Chair includes many spines that simulate the human skeletal body. Each section of the chair has individual support surfaces that are linked by "whiffletrees" to distribute weight across a larger surface. The chair literally conforms to the shape of the person who is sitting in it. As you can see below, the back of the chair looks similar to a rib cage.
Because we want our assignment to be relevant to the present and future, students are going to design a chair of the future. Advanced students can create prototypes sculptures from metal scraps and wire. Fabric can be included as a chair covering. Ergonomics must be considered in the design.
Furniture of the business and education world
Another furniture company based in Grand Rapids is Steelcase. I had the privilege of touring Steelcase with Director of Design Brett Kincaid and saw current and future furniture. The work station on the left (Click for full size) was the latest in design in 2010. The chairs were tested and created so that participants can move their chair to the right and left slightly when turning to talk to people at the table. The big screen can be controlled by either laptop at the table. Their conference workstations are designed to promote discussion and creativity. Steelcase has an exhibition hall where you can take your class for a school field trip. Call 616-666-0361 for more information.
Use the images on this page in a PowerPoint presentation. Give students a little history of furniture design. Use the furniture trading cards to reinforce the history of furniture. Students can then go online and view the resources on the Herman Miller website. They can also visit the design center of the Steelcase website. Students can see CAD and 3D design drawings as well as see details of every furniture item.
Once students have finished the activities, they will be instructed to design their own piece of furniture. They will first come up with a CAD/3D drawing (Software is optional), and then begin creating their prototype. The prototype will be constructed out of wire, tin or aluminum, fabric, foam, or any medium that will enhance their sculptures. It is preferred that these sculptures be kinetic and move as regular furniture. The complexity of the design is based on grade level.
While coming up with their furniture design, students should ask themselves the following questions:
Where will my furniture be?
What do I want my furniture to do?
How can I make my furniture ergonomic?
How can I integrate ergonomics with design?
What design can I create that will be attractive?
What color and construction should I use?
It is helpful if your art department has soldering irons to solder pieces of tin or aluminum together. If not, perhaps strong glue will suffice.
Furniture - Author Judith Miller showcases more than 3,000 years of design. From primitive pieces to elegant modernity, this definitive guide illustrates every style and form, with tips on how to recognize the key elements of each period.
Submitted by: Brian McCrory, art teacher at Hattiesburg High School in Hattiesburg, MS Lesson Plan: Funktafying Furniture Design Level: 10th-12th
Classroom discussion on Furniture Design. I.E. Pit Group Couches, Lounge Chairs, PVC Pipe Patio Furniture, and Furniture Designed for the elderly (Craftmatic Beds). Research furniture design via the Internet.
Students are asked to design on paper a piece of furniture for Consumer Groups between the ages of 18 -25 that would be placed in a living room for family room. The piece should be original, unusual, and inexpensive. The students will then be asked to bring in a piece of furniture of their own (small tables, a chair, lamps, jewelry boxes, etc.). These Pieces can be Junk Furniture from the side of the road (this is not main stream IVY League)
Have students research a style of art and paint their furniture finds in that style. Designs should fit the form of the piece of furniture. It might be a good idea to plan ahead when doing this project and visit some garage sales on your own and pick up a few pieces for those to use who weren't able to bring one in.