February 10, 2011

(Chair)men of the (card)board

Joel Asencio gets comfy in his award-winning chair, foreground,
as Matt Arsenault, left, and Camron Loiselle, center bask in the
glory of having accomplished a difficult task with flair.
Union Leader Correspondent
Standing, left to right, on Matt Arsenault's 
cardboard creation,Camron Loiselle, 
Matt Arsenault and Joel Asencio.
DERRY -- What do you call three young students of architecture innovating chair designs using nothing more than deconstructed shipping boxes and Elmer’s Glue?
Kings of Cardboard comes to mind, especially after you see the fruits of their labor — three sleek, sturdy, and totally recyclable chairs.
But Joel Asencio, Matt Arsenault and Camron Loiselle will tell you they’re really just a trio of motivated design students who wanted to test their ability at creating something, start to finish, using old-school ingenuity — and their hands.
They were inspired by Pinkerton Academy Architecture and Design instructor Rolfe Voltaire, who said constructing models of a design was once the standard. Today, with Computer Aided Drafting, his students operate in a virtual world where models are a thing of the past, and everything is possible — since it always looks good on paper.
“Although there’s no time to work this kind of project into our curriculum, I have been offering it as something the kids can do over Christmas break because I believe it teaches them about how things are made, and the limits of what a material — in this case cardboard — can, and can’t, do,” Voltaire said.

The annual “Extra Credit Opportunity” assignment is simple enough: Design and construct a chair made entirely from recycled cardboard and glue. It must support up to 150 pounds and meet certain design parameters. 
All participants earned up to 10 extra credit points. This year’s big winner, Joel Asencio, also took home a design software package worth $3,500. 
“They said mine won because of the comfort factor. It’s the perfect height and it feels good on your back,” Asencio said. 
It was also helpful to have that competitive spirit — last year’s winner was classmate Matt Arsenault, who this year placed a close second. 
“Even though I didn’t win, it felt good knowing that a technique I came up with last year, stacking the cardboard vertically, actually opened up a new world of design for these chairs. You can make it more extreme, without the supports because the strength of the vertical stacking,” Arsenault said. 
To prove a point, all three designers climbed on top of Arsenault’s chair and stood, confident the cardboard wouldn’t crumble. 
“We’ve put up to 600 pounds on it, and not even a flex or a rip,” Arsenault said. 
Arsenault said having such a project in his portfolio already is a plus, since college recruiters know that tackling an assignment like this is something most architecture students don’t encounter until late in their college careers. 
Such competitions are growing in popularity in high school and college-level engineering and design classes around the country, prompted by the increasing interest in sustainability. 
Voltaire said he first got the idea after two of his students returned from a conference in the late 1990s, so excited about having to build a model of a cardboard chair rather than rely on computer imaging to work out their concepts. 
Giving his students a head start on whatever their future careers might be is why he tries to make learning equal parts fun and challenging. 
“Last year my students won eight of the nine prizes awarded at the American Institute of Architecture competition,” Voltaire said. “Sure, some of them won’t go on to become architects. Maybe they’ll be designers, or urban planners.” 
But some of them will — like 2004 Pinkerton graduate Nick Mancusi, who parlayed his enthusiasm for advanced arts and crafts, and knack for innovation into a full-blown career. After high school he went on to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and is now making a name for himself with such forward- thinking design solutions as the trademarked Taliesin Mod.Fab sustainable one-bedroom convertible desert homes. 
“It’s all about creativity and technical skills, and solving a problem in a way that, maybe, no one else has thought of before,” Voltaire said. 

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