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The Experience of Furniture Studio

There are very few published accounts that seek to share the experience of architecture school.  Although the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) offers an on-line “Guide to Architecture Schools,” that guide only provides summaries of different schools’ offerings and just a brief description of the elements of a typical architectural education.  Some specialized programs such as design/build have received attention in publications, but the accounts of these programs are often descriptive and tend to focus on their pedagogical intentions or the results achieved.

Furniture Studio:  Materials, Craft, and Architecture (released by University of Washington Press in mid-April 2012);  the cover image is a console table by Nathan Messmer, Architecture 504 studio, winter quarter 2007 (table photo by John Stamets;  cover design by Ashley Saleeba)

When I decided to write about the UW Department of Architecture furniture studios, my goal was not only to show the extraordinary projects and to discuss the basis of the studio pedagogy, but also to convey something of what the experience of furniture studio is actually like.  Since I had never taken a furniture studio myself, I realized the only way I might be able to capture the experience would be to sit through an entire quarter-long studio, observing the students and the instructors, recording the step-by-step development of their projects, from the first day to the final review.

Thus, on the first days of the winter 2009 studio, Wednesday January 7, when the instructor, Senior Lecturer Andy Vanags, began speaking at 12:30 p.m., I was sitting in the back of the shop classroom ready to observe and take notes.  It was Andy’s last studio; he was retiring after 40 years at UW, and 20 years of teaching furniture studio.  Over the course of that quarter, I was able to watch and to record the full quarter of studio.  Chapter 3 of my new book, Furniture Studio: Materials, Craft, and Architecture (released by the University of Washington Press in mid April), is the result.

Architecture 504, winter quarter 2009;  wood for students’ final projects, purchased February 4, 2009 (photo by Gus Sinsheimer)

Once I began writing that spring, I realized that my account needed to begin before the initiation of furniture studio in 1989, and it seemed important to convey how furniture studio fit into the broader culture of our architecture program.  Thus, the history presented in Chapter 2 begins in the early 1961 with the creation of the school’s shop facilities and the subsequent development of shop-based classes.  It seems clear that one reason furniture studio has achieved success is that it does not stand alone;  rather it is embedded in the culture of our school which includes a pedagogical emphasis on materials and making, and a sequence of courses that address materials, assemblies, details, and the like.

When the UW Press sent the manuscript out for review in early 2010, the external readers were favorable but felt that the story was incomplete. One reviewer suggested that I add a few case studies to show how furniture studio influences graduates after they leave the UW.  And, there was a need to address the continuation of the studio following Andy Vanags’s retirement and Kimo Griggs’s appointment.

Architecture 402, Final Review, spring quarter 2010;  Catharine Killien presents her bench to jurors including Bob Spangler, Kimo Griggs, Chris Armes, Andy Vanags, Bill Suhr (photo by Caroline Davis)

Thus, the structure of Furniture Studio: Materials, Craft, and Architecture moves from general questions to specific achievements and influences. Chapter 1 introduces questions about making and fabrication and their place architectural education. Chapter 2 presents historical background, beginning with the appointment of Associate Professor Phil Thiel and creation of the school’s shop facilities, then traces the development of shop-based courses, and describes how Andy Vanags, with the assistance of Shop Manager Penny Maulden, conceived and created the furniture studio and fostered a high level of student performance over two decades.  Chapter 3 tells the story of the Winter Quarter 2009 studio–focusing on the eleven students and the projects they designed and made.  Chapter 4 presents an interpretation of the experience of furniture studio in larger contexts of architectural pedagogy, sustainability, and individual achievement.  In this chapter I draw on the writings of Donald Schön, Michael Polanyi, David Pye, Hannah Arendt and others.  Chapter 5 presents a catalog of exemplary projects showing the range of student achievement from 1990 to 2009.  Chapter 6 suggests the influence of furniture studio beyond the university by tracing the careers of four representative graduates, Brendan Connolly, San Batchelor, Sara Wise, and Bill Suhr.  The final chapter describes the continuation of furniture studio since appointment of Kimo Griggs including projects from the Winter and Spring 2010 studios, and then suggests implications for architectural education beyond the University of Washington.

International Fund for Animal Welfare headquarters, Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, by designLab, completed 2008;  Sam Batchelor, a student in furniture studio in winter quarter 2004, now a partner in designLab, was deeply involved in the realization of the IFAW building (photo by Peter Vanderwarker)

As with any book, many people contributed.  The eleven students who took the studio in Winter 2009 all sat through interviews and many provided photos that I used as illustrations. Andy Vanags, Penny Maulden, Phil Thiel and Kimo Griggs all agreed to be interviewed; so did Paula Patterson, Laura Yeats and Caroline Davis.  All of them and several others read the draft manuscript and made many helpful comments.  Paula Patterson also generously contributed many photos.  John Stamets was responsible for most of the full-page images of student projects.  Many individuals at the Press contributed, but several deserve special mention:  Marilyn Trueblood, managing editor, who guided the project, and Ashley Saleeba, who was responsible for the design.

Furniture Studio: Materials, Craft, and Architecture was released in mid-April 2012.  I was fortunate the College allowed me to share the book with a large audience as part of the Spring Lecture Series, and the Department chose to do an exhibit in Gould 208 to feature the book and, more importantly, to celebrate the achievements of our students in the furniture studio.

Jeanne Denker, console table; Architecture 504, winter quarter 1994 (photo by John Stamets)

Jeffrey Frechette, lounging chair;  Architecture 402, spring quarter 1996 (photo by John Stamets).

Chris Campbell, laminated chair; Architecture 402, spring quarter 2002 (photo by John Stamets).

Rebecca Wilcox, hall table;  Architecture 504, winter quarter 2010 (photo by John Stamets)


Jeffrey Karl Ochsner FAIA is a Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington, where he has taught since 1988 in the areas of architectural design, urban design, historic preservation, and architectural history. He served as Chair of the Department of Architecture from 1996 to 2002. He holds adjunct positions in the Departments of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design & Planning. He began serving as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the College of Built Environments in July 2007. 

The Association of College Schools of Architecture selected Professor Ochsner as one of five recipients of the 2012 ACSA Distinguished Professor Award.  He has twice won the College of Built Environments Lionel Pries Award for teaching excellence. 

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