What happens when children design furniture? A wave of inspiring creativity
When creative thinkers seek inspiration, there’s one tip that’s likely to spur a breakthrough: put yourself in a childlike mindset. As adults, we tend to get stuck in rigid thought patterns that restrict our imagination. Children, on the other hand, have no such mental limits. Ask them to design an object that performs a particular function, and they’ll come up with ideas that evade our preconceptions and sometimes even teach us new ways of thinking. A crucial lesson is that anything can be art. Why should a chair just be a chair when it can also be a sculpture?
At Trinity School in New York, professor of art Bruce Edelstein has spent the past 18 years exploring children’s creativity with The Grade Three Chair Project. Edelstein leads third-grade students at Manhattan’s Upper West Side private prep school through a process of designing and building their own chair designs over the course of a school semester. Weekly hour-long workshops teach students ages 7-10 to come up with creative concepts, sketch them, and build models using paper before moving on to the really fun part: building.
In 2021, the kids came up with some of their most remarkable designs to date. The fall semester program was not restricted to third graders last year but also incorporated fourth graders as the school was disrupted due to the pandemic in 2020. In a recent interview , Edelstein explained how he adapted the program to the pandemic. Switching to e-learning for the design process was a unique challenge.
“We started out talking about the same ideas, looking around to see that someone has created all of these things, whether it’s a faucet in your bathroom or a light fixture, that the whole design idea is something. thing that we live in all the time, that they can participate in,” Edelstein says. “I didn’t get as involved in whether you could actually make it happen. When we make it out of wood, there are certain things that you need to learn about how to connect wood, whether it’s gluing and nailing, or using triangles to brace things like the leg against the seat.
The children were able to bring their creations to life when in-person learning resumed. Clearly adept at sparking the kind of abstract thinking that leads to exciting designs, Edelstein asked the kids questions about their themes. He encouraged a student who wanted her chair to evoke ballet to think about what drew her to ballet in the first place, taking some of the ideas or forms that were important to her and using them in the form of the chair. The result is striking. The student imagined how she would stand in ballet and translated her into the chair, with one arm arched above her head and one leg bent.
Some students focused on utility and pragmatism rather than artistic flair, combining chairs with other furniture like shelves, desks, or storage hooks. Others have produced designs that resemble the expensive works of renowned contemporary artists. It’s fascinating how they ignore the archetypal “chair” shape and just think about what they want the chair to feel like, or serve them in particular. An unpainted piece twists and turns the basic shapes of the chair to create a one-armed seat with a circular side table. Another is in the shape of an easel, another of a wheelchair. Some have horns, fangs, and even the open jaws of an alligator as a seat.
“Letting the personal nuances shine through in your work is really important,” notes Edelstein. “And that’s what you see with these kids. They are very in touch with their feelings at this point in their lives. They don’t hold back. They do not edit themselves. They don’t wonder if it’s silly or not. I think as an adult you look at them and realize that maybe we can let ourselves go a little bit.
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