Wilson School of Design students take a seat to Museum of Vancouver

Wed, Jan 10, 2024

A collaboration between Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) and Museum of Vancouver (MOV) has a class of designers on the edge of their seats.

Product design students at KPU’s Wilson School of Design are creating chairs out of vintage mahogany wood that will form part of an exhibition at one of Canada's premier civic history museums. Nine teams of second-year students have each completed at least one chair over the past fall term and another five chairs are in progress.

In early 2025, the chairs will be displayed as part of Take a Seat (working title), an exhibition featuring the design and cultural history of chairs. The two-gallery exhibition will feature chairs from MOV’s permanent collection and those designed by KPU students, and will serve as a sequel to MOV’s current exhibition, Reclaim + Repair: The Mahogany Project, which features work of local designers selected to produce an object of their choosing using donated mahogany.

of KPU product design students (from left) Jordyn MacAdams, Quinton Kehler, and Sara Lee present the Bloom Chair.
PHOTO: KPU product design students (from left) Jordyn MacAdams, Quinton Kehler, and Sara Lee present the Bloom Chair.

Take a Seat aligns with a broader initiative within the realm of design aimed at championing urban mining — sourcing materials from construction and demolition waste to produce new objects — within the realm of design. Urban mining involves sourcing materials from construction and demolition waste to produce new objects.

KPU students have been working with mahogany, harvested between the 1950s and 1970s in Guatemala and Nicaragua, from a local business that specialized in boating equipment. When the business closed, leftover wood went into storage for many years before its caretakers gave it a second life by donating it to the museum.

Viviane Gosselin tests a student design.
PHOTO: Viviane Gosselin tests a student design.

Viviane Gosselin, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at MOV, says KPU students have a lot to be proud of. 

“When we delivered the mahogany wood to Wilson School of Design, all we knew is it would be transformed into chairs. We had no idea who would be making them or what the chairs would look like,” says Gosselin. “I am so very impressed. Most professional designers will never get to design chairs. These students are not even out of school and have designed chair prototypes — some of the better-looking prototypes ever.”

MOV will display the students’ work for up to one year, and it will also be for sale, with partial proceeds going to reforestation efforts in Central America.

Iryna Karaush, a product design instructor at Wilson School of Design, says this was the first significant woodworking project product design students have undertaken.

“We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to take part in the MOV’s initiative that provided us with the opportunity not just to obtain experience in working with precious mahogany wood and showcase our creative energy and skills to the local community at the MOV exhibition, but also to contribute to the promotion of a circular economy to achieve sustainable design,” says Karaush.

Take a Seat will challenge viewers to re-evaluate the significance of chairs and how they serve as artifacts that reveal much about their creators. 

Students Sara Lee, Quinton Kehler, and Jordyn MacAdams created the Bloom Chair, a classic four-legged design with a seat motif of mahogany tree seeds falling toward a bloom at its peak. It draws inspiration from Ming dynasty chairs Lee grew up with.

“Mahogany’s history is a heavy one. It’s not easy to talk about. It deals with colonialism, slavery, and exploitation, and we often forget the beauty of the wood itself,” says Lee. “Our chair aims to strip away at these notions by showing the seed, the bloom, and the life.”

In preparing for their builds, students participated in a number of mentoring sessions with designers, including Toby Barratt, a partner with Vancouver-based Propellor Studio.

Students present their mahogany chair design.
PHOTO: Students present their mahogany chair design.

“I really couldn’t have imagined how well these prototypes would have turned out given the timeline and level of experience of the students. Every project is of high quality,” says Barratt. “Students honoured the mahogany in really beautiful ways. I’m absolutely blown away.”

KPU's bachelor of product design is a four-year program at the Wilson School of Design that provides emerging designers with a dynamic inter-disciplinary education that links innovation and creativity through the transformation of ideas into marketable products. 

Mahogany Chair Project