Sixth-graders at Upper Perkiomen Middle School, left to right, Taylor McKelvey, Sam Durkin and Mary Camuso, work on gesture drawings of a Knoll Tulip armless chair circa 1955.
You may be familiar with design legends Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, Max Pearson and Florence Schust Knoll, who crafted unique, world-famous modern furniture for Knoll in the 1950’s and 60’s.
But how about the likes of Alyssa Brown, Eric Smith, Olivia Benner and Abigail Foreman? The names of those Upper Perkiomen School District students could go on to join their local counterparts, with pieces in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or The Museum of Modern Art, thanks, in part, to a collaborative project by the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center.
Students were asked to create a variety of furniture and textile designs for a sister exhibit to the Schwenkfelder’s “Design in the Valley” exhibit. That exhibit highlights highly influential Knoll engineers who settled in the region to work during the heyday of American furniture design.
The student exhibit, entitled “The Key to Design: Refine and Revise,” opened Feb. 24 and includes the work of elementary through high school students.
Prior to beginning the creative process in the classroom, students got an intimate tour of the Knoll facilities and museum in East Greenville this fall. Teachers also met with Rebecca Lawrence, Schwenkfelder educator, and Robert DeFuccio, Knoll designer, to talk about the process of furniture design and, primarily, the emphasis of analyzing and adjusting the designer’s work until he or she has a successful piece. It was that emphasis which ultimately led to the exhibit’s title.
Elementary students went to work creating a wide variety of miniature furniture sculptures. The sculptures were made out of wire, toothpicks, cork, foam, and upholstery fabric. One student even used packing peanuts for curved lounge chair legs.
Maria Conway, Marlborough art teacher, said fifth-graders explored Knoll chairs online with the classroom Smartboard and paged through Knoll books before coming up with a miniature chair of their own design.
“The students loved the lesson. Each enjoyed rummaging through boxes of art materials and using fabric donated by Knoll to create their chair,” she said of the project.
Hereford Elementary’s Norma Reichenbach-Nichols said her students’ enthusiasm for the work was contagious.
“Their chairs went above and beyond expectations and they had a great time doing it. Every day the students were so excited to come right in and work on their chairs,” she explained. “There was a lot of collaboration between students to come up with new and different ideas. Some students took the lesson even further and created recliners, end tables, foot rests, ottomans, lamps, pillows and ingenious stories [about] how their chairs would be used in real life.”
Sixth-grade students, under the direction of Michele Burns and Kristina Olson-Berryman, made gesture drawings of a variety of chairs, several of which were borrowed from Knoll. In those pieces, the students created a metamorphosis where the chair transformed into an animal or creature.
Seventh-graders focused on textile design and used household items like potato mashers, spatulas and napkin rings to apply ink to blocks of textile scrap.
Their older counterparts, the eighth-graders, played the role of a designer and recreated furniture into more modern models.
“I liked changing the design of the ornate furniture into a contemporary style. It was interesting,” noted student Ridge Weibel. Those students also included sample blocks of materials their furniture would need for production.
Some were pricy, with materials like gold and silver, but the students had free reign when it came to the design process.
Upper Perkiomen High School students built a child’s chair, from prototype up to production-run samples, in an industrial technology course, and created freeform hot plates in a ceramics class. Amy Lychock’s digital photography classes visited the Knoll museum and explored the process of design used to create the furniture, as well as experimented with compositions they could create with their photos inside the museum.
But perhaps the crown jewel of the exhibit, which caught the eye of many visitors Sunday, is the life-size chairs built by Lora Mayer’s crafts and 3-D design class.
The chairs ranged from a model made entirely out of aluminum cans to an Egyptian-themed piece to a chair made out of candy including gummy bears, Spree, Jolly Ranchers and licorice with a sprinkle-laden seat.
“We got to work together and we were able to learn about the history and culture of the subject matter for our chair design,” said senior Kandace Higman of her group’s Egyptian-themed piece. She also said she appreciated learning about the importance of a company in her backyard. “It was fascinating to find out that such a large artistic corporation was so close to home.”
Lychock called the sum of the students’ work “amazing” and “well-rounded.” “I am very excited to see the reaction of the students and community members,” she said.
“I feel this was a very valuable experience for our students in so many different ways,” added Burns. “The new lessons enhanced our curriculum. I know that our students don’t always consider where things like chairs and textiles come from. Hopefully now they will think twice when they look at a chair or buy a patterned scarf. I think they developed a new respect for design. The lessons have also brought our students closer to their community.”
And the students couldn’t help but be a little proud after getting some recognition from the pros themselves.
DeFuccio was at Sunday’s exhibit opening and Schultz, creator of the petal table and other notable Knoll furniture, had a private tour.
“He was just delighted with what the children had done; impressed with the whole thing,” said Schwenkfelder Curator Candace Perry of Schultz’s reaction.
“The Key to Design: Refine and Revise” is open through April 14. For more information, call (215)679-3103 or visit www.schwenkfelder.com.