Learning through making

The vision behind Out of the Woods, a collaboration between AHEC, benchmark and students of the RCA.

A dozen students (or pairs of students) at the Royal College of Art have designed chairs that both rethink the notion of sitting and teach important lessons about sustainability. While all were following a course on product design, some of the students had experience of furniture making and working with wood, and others did not. They all enjoyed a special experience – camping for a week in July at Benchmark in Berkshire, where they were able to work with craftsmen to make their chairs. During this process they carefully documented the materials and tools that they used, so that they could come up with a detailed life-cycle analysis of their designs. The finished chairs all went on exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum  as part of the London Design Festival.

The project was the brainchild of David Venables, European director of the American Hardwood Export Council, and Sebastian Wrong, a founding member and design-development director of Established & Sons as well as a tutor on the design products programme at the RCA. ‘I can see very clearly that the real application of environmental sustainability will rise to the surface,’ said Venables. ‘I wanted to use the opportunity to challenge the students a degree further, to get them to explore what is coming and where we are going.’

Work that the American Hardwood Export Council has carried out on life-cycle analysis (described in detail on later pages) has made it possible to apply hard data to the use of timber. The students, who received lectures on this as well as on furniture making, and who all used American hardwoods in their designs, were therefore able to calculate exactly the impact of the objects that they were making.

But this analysis was always intended as an adjunct to, rather than the sole driver of, their creativity. This was spelt out in the brief given to the students, which was as follows:

‘To design a seat for function. This could be a chair, stool or bench or anything else that can be sat upon.

‘Materials to be used are American hardwoods and veneers. 

‘The project aims to explore the versatility of hardwood as a production material and the consumption of energy and associated resources that the production of your design demands, from the felling of the tree to the product's end of life scenario. Therefore, consider issues relating to robustness, efficiencies both of material and production, and of course aesthetic. It is one thing to design a chair/seat that will physically survive the wear and tear of a long life; it is quite another to design a chair/seat that has the aesthetic qualities that will remain relevant long in to the future.’

For Sebastian Wrong the strength of the project lay not only in the lifecycle analysis, but also in the opportunity for the students to move from simply designing to making their designs in a professional environment. ‘The platform presented to the students, particularly the work of making, is something that has never been experienced before,’ he said. ‘They are engaging in a process they have never done before, balancing design ideas with schedule and timing. They have very little experience of actually engaging with materials.’

The potential of wood as a natural material is great, he believes, and said, ‘There are some great ideas – that is what I find so inspiring. The benefit to the students, to the RCA and to AHEC is very tangible on a number of levels.’ And, he added, ‘The project is opening a whole discussion about lifecycle. It is making wood a very contemporary material to use.’

Harry Richardson, who teaches the course with Wrong and is co-founder of product design studio Committee, said, ‘It seems that the reality AHEC is dealing with through the use of LCA is one that we must all come to understand more and more if the market is to find a sustainable future and so I think this has been a very stimulating learning experience for the students.’ 

One can see just how valuable a learning experience it has been by looking at the work that the students have produced.