On a Friday evening last month, Brooks Atwood, principal designer and co-founder of POD Design, was lying on the floor of the Blu Dot SoHo showroom, struggling with his jacket. A crowd gathered. “Does anyone know how to inflate this?” he asked the onlookers hopefully.
As it turned out, the designer, Parsons BFA Product Design student Elmar Fujita, was on hand to offer some guidance. Under the direction of Professor Mark Bechtel, Fujita and her classmates had spent the fall semester designing objects that expanded the definition of furniture. They were challenged to create pieces that could fold neatly into a standard UPS box or tube. The class, fittingly, was called Flat Pack Studio.
At the review, which was structured as an assembly trial, student designer input was generally not permitted. That left the evaluating panel of New York design luminaries, who, in addition to Atwood, included Rama Chorpash, Parsons Product Design director; Crystal Ellis, founding member of Egg Collective; Andrea Ruggiero, principal at Andrea Ruggiero Design and a Parsons alumnus and faculty member; and faculty members Allan Wexler and Joel Stoehr. The panelists, who had come to serve more as consultants and test subjects than judges, pored over the student-provided assembly instructions.
“Even numbers first, with tabs on the bottom … ,” said Chorpash, reading the instructions for assembling YiLeen Ang’s Marionette, an apparatus that looked like a wooden stand for a World War I–era machine gun. After extensive study, he discovered that it was a table. Its spindly legs and tabletop support were attached with string, and the table assumed its shape when the cord was yanked upward.
But let’s return to Atwood, flopping on Blu Dot’s concrete floor. In this case, the student designer was allowed to intervene. First Fujita folded down the jacket’s lining. She then brought it together around Atwood’s legs before zipping it to create a sort of sleeping bag. A small pump was attached, and moments later, Atwood was floating on a cushion of air a few inches off the ground. “I can even feel it under my head!” he said, astonished. “It’s pretty comfortable.” The students and designers stood over him for a while, praising Fujita’s work and inquiring about details (could it be inflated without an electric pump?), occasionally reaching out to poke Atwood, who rocked back and forth slightly with each prod.
The jacket-cum–sleeping cocoon, called Nete (Japanese for “to sleep”), was envisioned as a form of emergency shelter for the homeless. It was just one of the many esoteric furnishings, constructed in unlikely ways, being pulled out of their boxes and assembled (sometimes only after considerable effort on the part of the assembler). There was Cole Bennet’s Inflatable Chair, a clear plastic cylinder that is inflated simply by being pulled open (the panel was particularly impressed that Bennet had incorporated a valve from a floating trampoline); Kesley Coyle’s Alice Chair, a swing seat made entirely out of upcycled plastic bags; and Jenny Hsu’s POD, two pieces of industrial felt that zip together to become either a throw rug or a low chair. Jia Jia Zheng made a remarkably beautiful and sturdy compact laptop stand from pieces of honeycomb aluminum encased in fabric.
There was a celebratory mood in the studio as the crowd pressed in to watch the pieces being taken out of their packages, gasping and murmuring with approval or wonder. When the testers broke a few of the projects, they were quick to apologize, and just as quick to recognize a teaching moment, encouraging students to examine why certain pieces were so fragile in the first place. Spirits ran high; at one point, a student sitting in a chair hanging from one of Blu Dot’s guardrails began vigorously bouncing up and down, nearly cracking the railing in two before several watchful members of the crowd shouted for her to stop.
It was all in the spirit of learning. “The Flat Pack Studio emphasizes exploration of materials, structure, and form,” Bechtel explained. “Solutions are realized across different scales of manufacturing as students begin to understand the potential for technology to be used as opposed to being led by it. They also learn the difference between fundamental innovation and incremental change.” It was also, not incidentally, a lot of fun.