For one recent assignment, Stephen Leet, professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, asked graduate students enrolled in his Design Culture course to construct model chairs with a material commonly found in kitchens and children’s craft classes, and less so in architecture studios and furniture fabrication shops: farfalle, rigatoni, and other pastas.
“I wanted [the students] to make something, and make something quick and almost be frivolous so they wouldn’t take it so seriously. And pasta is cheap,” says Leet. “I think, also, so they could learn to be playful while in architecture school because architecture school is very demanding and this is something you might do in Kindergarten.”
Indeed, the graduate students enrolled in Design Culture are also taking a studio course in which they must design multi-unit housing. Leet wanted to offer an assignment that wasn’t as stressful or serious, but that emphasized core architectural principles in a nuanced way.
“I focused on chairs as what I thought were the best examples of design by architects working at a different scale than buildings. And, for architects, I think chairs are sculptures as well as things which are driven by a purpose,” he says.
The Design Culture course aims to give students an overview of the ways history, philosophy, and technology have shaped design movements. Students study design practices across a range of disciplines, including graphic design, furniture design, and film and animation to better understand how they complement and enrich architecture.
For Leet, chairs—at once familiar and complex—are an ideal model for examining design culture. Chair designers must consider comfort and function as well as form. With arms, backs, seats, legs, and feet, chairs can be analogous to the human body. But that basic structure can also take various turns, angles, and forms as illustrated by the different styles of pasta chairs created by his students.
“For me, it was similar to architecture, even though it seems silly, because you have materials, structure, design, proportion, and purpose,” says Leet.
Students had three weeks to construct chairs, using either hard or soft pasta—not stuffed, like ravioli—although one student who pleaded for an exception chose to work with gnocchi, akin to a dumpling. The finished chairs could be no larger than six by twelve inches, and the design inspiration could come from anywhere, including the students’ own imagination, an exhibit of chairs designed by architects, displayed throughout the fall at the Kenneth and Nancy Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library on the Washington University campus or, even, the unconventional material itself.
“I thought, This is going to be interesting. They could take those different pasta shapes and use them just like bricks and put them together in different ways, which would be expedient, says Leet. “But, also, if they cooked the pasta, it could drape. It could fold. They could use gravity. They could mold it.”
Many students stuck with hard pasta, using white glue or super glue to create chairs in several styles. Others cooked their pasta and shaped it, with one using cooked farro and a mold to construct a comfy-looking overstuffed chair. Student Elliott Boyle crocheted cooked pasta, a technique that gave the finished design a unique form and texture.
“I laughed at myself many times while crocheting with cooked spaghetti, all for an assignment that I’ll likely never put in a portfolio or present in any fashion,” says Boyle, who spent two to three hours making the chair before letting it dry for several days. “Yet the experience was valuable. It made me feel connected to how I got into design in the first place—through playing and experimenting with everyday materials. Joy is a source of creativity, and taking the time to find it in unconventional places has made me a stronger designer and person.”
Boyle’s chair is, in fact, on display as part of a larger installation of designs by students. The works can be viewed until the end of the month in the hallway of the Kenneth and Nancy Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library at the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. For more information on visiting the library, click here.