Upper School News & Stories
Where most people see a chair, Will Berman ’15 sees a design opportunity.
“I love design in general,” he says. “I enjoy seeing how everyday things we use can be cooler, more functional, more beautiful, with more attention to detail, and more care in how it is actually made. The chair is a natural progression from that.”
For his senior independent project, Will spent seven weeks designing and building that cooler and more functional chair. He began by studying chairs, spending time at the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design, and furniture stores in Soho that specialize in 20th century design.
He was drawn to the work of Charles and Ray Eames, as well as Willy Guhl’s “Ribbon Chair” and Gerrit Rietveld’s “Zig Zag Chair.” He liked the soles on Rick Owens’s sneakers: could that concept translate into a chair design? He thought about how he could incorporate some of his favorite materials – denim and leather – into the chair using “materials in a way that you wouldn’t expect.”
Will has always been drawn to design and workmanship. At 15, he started a business called Unwashed Denim that sells jeans and denim and leather accessories that he makes himself. As he thought about his chair, he gravitated to wood, a material that was relatively new to him but that offered some of the appeal of denim and leather.
“They are rustic and sturdy materials,” he said. “They are not that easy to work with, but once you understand the material and get to know it, it is easier to build three-dimensional objects from it.
“I love picturing something and taking that image in my head and manipulating materials to create it,” he continued. “I love that experience of turning something flat and basic like a roll of fabric or sheet or wood into something functional and beautiful – functional and beautiful is the crux of what I am really interested in.”
He filled a sketchbook with ideas, and working with his advisor, Miles Cameron of the art department, he eventually settled upon a concept with an organic, fluid shape, constructed out of 34 vertical slices of ½-inch maple plywood. Each slice is cut slightly differently so that when the pieces are assembled into a single structure, the chair looks like it is made out of one piece of wood, but from the side, there is an intricate webbing effect that gives the piece an airiness.
The design phase was laborious as he worked out how each of the 34 pieces would be cut, but because he didn’t have the opportunity to prototype the object, he got “the concept fully locked down in my mind before I went to the materials.”
Once he cut the wood, the workmanship began: sanding, gluing, dying, varnishing. Inspired by his work in denim, he decided to dye the wood indigo, creating one-of-a-kind gradations reflecting the individual properties of each piece of wood.
His work on the chair extended beyond the last day of classes as he continued to perfect every detail. “I love the details,” he said. “I’ll spend an hour burnishing an edge because I need to get it right.”
The experience showed him that he can take on a completely new kind of project. "I love how it turned out. A lot of the time an idea doesn't translate perfectly into a physical product, but this chair is very close to what I had envisioned 2 months ago. What I'm even more happy with, though, is the process. Truthfully, when I started out I was a little nervous -- I knew absolutely nothing about designing or making a chair but I kept my fingers crossed that I'd figure it out. This project was reassuring in that (as I had hoped) the overall process I've used to design and craft hats, cardholders, jackets, etc. can be applied to other mediums."
Next year, he will attend the Iovine-Young Academy, a specialized 25-student program at the University of Southern California that focuses on design, technology and entrepreneurship. He will be in the second class. “They’re all creative,” he said, “kids who have started businesses, gifted photographers, musicians, painters. They are trying to build a team of creative people who will work together well and make cool stuff.”