It would be easy to take a chair for granted. We’re surrounded every day by such a wide variety of them that the craft and care that goes into making a chair could easily be ignored. But for five Haverford students who participated in this year’s VCAM Design + Make Summer fellowship, every chair is now something to behold.
Over the course of eight weeks, each student designed and built four chairs following four different briefs from Kent Watson, VCAM’s arts education and programs manager. They sawed, sanded, and stained their way through the summer, developing a deeper sense of the art of furniture making as they labored over their own interpretations of the humble chair.
This is the fourth year for the summer fellowships, which offer a fully funded two-month immersion in design, prototyping, and digital fabrication supported by VCAM (the Visual Culture Arts and Media facility) and its Maker Arts Space. The program’s first cohort, in 2020, which had to work remotely due to COVID-19, collaborated with a nonprofit that makes 3D-printed prosthetics to design and prototype a device that could hold utensils for a person with double amputation. In 2021, the Design + Make fellows worked to create objects of play for two local social service organizations that aid families and children, and in 2022 they designed inventive toys and games.
This summer, during the fellowship’s first week, Watson tasked Andrew Johanningsmeier ’25, Luca Ponticello ’24, Lucy Frank ’25, Ash DiCristofalo ’23, and Seamus Flannery ’23 with building a chair out of 1-by-1 lumber, using only handsaws, screws, and wood glue. For their second project, the fellows made stools. Their third assignment was to use a 3D computer-aided design program to craft chairs built out of Baltic birch plywood with the help of a CNC router, a computer-controlled cutting machine. For the fellowship’s final chair, Watson gave students the freedom to come up with their own project using walnut and red oak culled from the Haverford Arboretum. Zach Hill, Haverford’s digital arts and sculpture technician, supervised the woodshops.
For that final project, Johanningsmeier made a reading chair with a lamp extending overhead. DiCristofalo channeled her love of squirrels into a chair whose carved back carries the silhouette of one, fuzzy tail and all. Ponticello made a stool with exposed joinery, asymmetrical crossbars, and an intricate illustration of dozens of cartoon faces on its seat. Frank’s pink, snake-adorned seat in the shape of a house and Flannery’s plywood basket design with red trim and webbing pushed the boundaries of what a chair could be.
For Ponticello, an art major who worked with Watson in last summer’s VCAM fellowship, which focused on designing and making toys, building chairs offered a chance to use his creative energy in a way that “felt more practical than drawing or painting.” He honed new woodshop skills and learned along the way that he may have more interest in woodworking than he had previously thought.
“Any chance I can get to prove to myself that hard work pays off, I’ll take,” Ponticello said. “Sometimes it’s hard to see yourself really getting anywhere with a creative pursuit.”
At the end of the summer, Watson invited the Haverford College community to VCAM for “Chair-ish,” an afternoon sit-a-thon where guests sat in the students’ chairs and discussed the ideas and inspiration that informed them.
“There was something powerful about everyone sitting in chairs, facing each other, having a conversation about the things we were sitting in,” Watson said.
Several of the chairs will live in spaces across Haverford’s campus, while others were given to fellows’ family members. Johanningsmeier hopes he can someday get his reading chair home to Omaha, Nebraska. Ponticello, meanwhile, has ensured that his prized stool will stay close at hand.
“It’s sitting in the corner of my room now and when I look at it I think, ‘I did that,’” Ponticello said.