If design is the intermediary between humans and experience, then furniture design holds the answers for how we interact with and experience our surroundings. You may never have thought about your furniture in this way, but it is the prevailing subject that rules the minds of furniture design students, in addition to materials, style, sustainability, comfort and function. There’s also the business reality to consider. Home furnishings is a $100 billion dollar industry where a simple passion for making things, combined with entrepreneurial savvy, can blossom into a mega retail brand.
Katy Skelton's booth at High Point Market.
That convergence seems inevitable for Katy Skelton (M.F.A., furniture design, 2011), a 2014 Martha Stewart American Made Awards Furniture & Home Accessories nominee, who is one of 2,000 brands showing their designs at the High Point Furniture Market, the world’s largest furnishings trade show. Katy is a member of the American Society of Furniture Designers, which just recognized two of her peers from Savannah College of Art and Design as finalists in the first-ever student category of the Pinnacle Awards.
From top to bottom: Christian's Organia Cocktail Table and Kai-ning's Bird Bench.
SCAD graduate students Kai-ning Huang (M.F.A., furniture design) and Christian Dunbar (M.F.A., furniture design) are just behind Katy on the trajectory to making an impact in the furniture business. All three of them represent how the industry is turning a new leaf to uncover fresh talent, young designers who will take the industry from one dominated by traditional furniture in to a modern era. Hence the need for the ASFD’s new award, which shone a light on Kai-ning’s Bird Bench and Christian’s Organia Cocktail Table during its confab in High Point.
From left to right at the ASFD awards dinner: SCAD furniture design professor George Perez, Kai-ning Huang, SCAD furniture design professor Sheila Edwards and Christian Dunbar.
Just before stepping out to be recognized as future leaders in the industry, Kai-ning, Christian and thirty other emerging furniture designers from SCAD stepped back in time during a field trip to Thayer Coggin’s High Point-based furniture factory.
For furniture design students, understanding furniture in a historical context is key to knowing how to create its future. This is why an invitation to visit Thayer Coggin, a legend celebrating 60 years of success in the furniture industry, represents a jackpot of an opportunity. Thayer Coggin’s mid-century modern, American-made pieces are enduring classics from which the students can learn invaluable lessons about true quality and the sweet spot between intelligent design and function. Thayer Coggin got it so right that they are still manufacturing those original designs, and producing new ones rarely, if at all.
It’s quite a contrast to see the shiny new faces of the industry inside the family-centric plant, their CAD-trained hands sweeping across award-winning designer Milo Baughman’s original drafting table. The factory’s workers still crank out gorgeous furniture using what look to be the same machines that were in the shop when Thayer and Milo first woke up the sleepy furniture business with bold, contemporary pieces.
Carol Lowe, one of Thayer Coggin's long-time employees, leads the SCAD group on a tour of the factory, through all the steps of production, a life span of about eight weeks for most of the pieces that the plant turns out. The students make their way past wooden pattern frames, to upholstery, cutting, sewing and finishing areas.
Carol points out prototypes of original designs that the company intends to bring back. She explains how online sales are increasingly driving interest from overseas and shares anecdotes about recent shipments to Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. (The fabric choices were far different than what domestic customers are ordering.) Whether the students aspire to design and make their furniture by hand, just design, or design and mass manufacture their pieces, the tour is instructive. “We’re just designing things,” notes Sebastian Engel (M.F.A., furniture design) as he discusses the latest in cushion fill with one of Thayer Coggin's staff members. “We want to make sure that our designs work in the real world.”
For 23-year-old Tanner Price (M.F.A, furniture design), who chose SCAD for its emphasis on designing and producing full lines of furniture for the industry, versus focusing just on craft and one-off pieces, witnessing the scale of Thayer Coggin’s operation is enlightening. “You go from a school setting where it’s you, you’re designing and you’re making, to a place where it’s extrapolated to almost one hundred employees, where it’s constant production. It’s a very different but interconnected setting,” he observes. “It’s cool to see the other end of the spectrum.”
Eventually, the group emerges from Thayer Coggin’s modest factory into its slick show room, where Carol points out the pieces that made Thayer Coggin the leader that it is.
The Crusin’ chair, featured in Architectural Digest’s profile of Will Ferrell’s Manhattan loft, stops Christian in his tracks. “It’s as minimal as minimal can be, but still polished,” he notes. “There’s nothing superfluous about it. It’s pure form.”
The chair retails for $9,000.
Someone who’s not attuned to the elements of furniture design might just have noted the chair’s comfort. But the feeling of a piece is also very important, especially to senior Shawn Horsey (B.F.A., furniture design) who finds respite in another chair that deftly cushions the Lacrosse player’s 6-foot-6-inch frame. Part of the genius of the piece is that it can accommodate a body as large as Shawn’s or as small as Kai-ning’s.
Kain-ing sits for a long while in the Good Egg chair and marvels at other features and techniques, like how the footrest folds up under the walnut frame of a recliner.
From Thayer Coggin, the students move on to the High Point Market, host to 75,000 attendees each spring and fall. Inside the IHFC building, one of 180 buildings that comprise the event, they canvas millions of square feet of show space to complete a trend spotting assignment. A few of the design trends that will make their photo journals include cold, metal finishes, grey tones and rectilinear forms.
Shawn, who’s designing an industrial line based on blurring the lines between kitchen and living space for his senior thesis project, hunts down pieces constructed of metal and wood, his favorite materials to work with. Market is for buyers, but it also serves as a feast of inspiration for designers, and it's a place where students can begin to integrate themselves into an industry that's built on relationships.
As a graduate student, Kai-ning has already made inroads for her career in furniture design. During a summer internship at Gabby Home in Montevallo, Alabama, she designed several tables that the manufacturer is showing at Market. She is ecstatic to see her pieces in Gabby’s showroom. Aside from the furniture she has produced at SCAD, this is the first time she has seen her designs come to life, and it marks her official debut at the show.
Kai-ning embodies the qualities that it takes to make it in the business. According to SCAD faculty members George Perez and Sheila Edwards, who arranged the students’ appointments in High Point, there are five characteristics that define a future furniture design star.
5 qualities of a furniture design star
1.) Excellent work ethic
2.) Grasp of furniture’s historical landscape
3.) Good design instincts
4.) Passion for furniture as objects we live with
5.) Curiosity that drives stand-out pieces
George and Sheila are making the rounds to visit showrooms where SCAD alumni, who have already established their careers, are at work. In addition to Katy Skelton, they visit Justin Abee (B.F.A., furniture design, 2004), now in product development for Palecek, which specializes in woven furniture for homes and the hospitality industry. He walks George and Sheila through Palecek’s new equestrian collection.
Like Thayer Coggin, Palecek is an American family-run business that’s a pioneer in the industry. Its furniture is high in quality and price point, but takes its inspiration from different materials and influences. Palecek and Thayer Coggin represent the vast diversity within the industry and the humble origins of many furniture makers. Pieces from manufactures like these can last up to 40 to 50 years. With the right start, immersing themselves as they have in the furniture industry’s epicenter even before they graduate, so too should the careers of these future furniture designers endure.
And the next Milo Baughman is among them.