University of Minnesota: Online learning sparks furniture design creativity

In mid-March, when students at the University of Minnesota were advised not to return to campus because of COVID-19, faculty began scrambling to figure out how to transform their teaching to an engaging online environment. For students in College of Design adjunct instructor Tom Oliphant’s “Furniture Design, Practice” course, that meant they’d lost access to the college’s woodshop, metal shop, and all the materials and tools usually used in creating furniture.

It’s a wildly popular course, and as part of it, each student is required to create two pieces of furniture.

“We were two weeks into the project,” says Oliphant. “They had plans for making things out of oak and steel… I can’t overstate what a change it was for them to shift gears.”

After pivoting to Zoom, Oliphant gave the students a new challenge: wherever you are, create two chairs out of the materials you can find in your environment. Students were located at apartments in the Twin Cities, at cabins in northern Minnesota, and at farms in Wisconsin.

While it may have been easier for the students to make more traditional structures on campus, the new restrictions gave rise to some whimsical and unexpected creations.

“They had to learn to take their ideas and express them in a different form, which quite honestly is the most powerful design lesson I could teach, says Oliphant. “Your ideas are the things which have the power, not the object itself.”

For the first two weeks after Minnesota Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home order, senior Josephine Howell (BS in design and architecture) was in her apartment in Minneapolis, where she was packing up for a return to her parents’ home in Madison, WI.

“When it came time to start looking at materials for chairs, my eyes kept going back to these garbage cans because they fit the basic dimensions of chairs already—but they were full of garbage, so I kept glazing over them,” she says.

When she got back to Madison, she had packed up the garbage cans along with the rest of her things and decided to go for it, cutting up the cans and molding them into a pair of chairs she’s proud of.

“The chairs really did come from the most restriction, which actually produced the most creativity,” she says.

Other students in the class made chairs out of everything from old blue jeans and blue velvet curtains, to deck railing and leftover nylon webbing.

Student Charlie Kuok (seen here hammering his chair on YouTube) made his chairs with nothing but a load of cardboard, a gallon of glue, a hammer, and an x-acto knife.

Howell says that while she misses the interaction and the immediate feedback of being together in class and in the workshop, the 180-degree turn has been an enlightening experience.

“Something that I as a designer have been rejoicing in is how these restrictions force you to look at your everyday surroundings in a different light,” she says. “As a student of design, that’s the most successful outcome I could ask for.”

After teaching the course for more than 15 years, Oliphant agrees the experience has been one of unexpected insights for him as well.

“I thought we’d be struggling with the distance, but in a lot of ways I feel closer to my students this semester than I ever have,” he says. “There’s no hiding, I guess. You’re all sitting in front of a screen, and you can see each other, and feel empathy in a way that I never expected. It has been very profound.”