School 21: “Why should I care about a chair?”


V&A East
December 21, 2021

The V&A East Storehouse, opening 2024, will revolutionise access to the collection and visitors will be invited on a behind-the-scenes tour where they will encounter a wide variety of objects through changing displays and a dynamic public programme, and be introduced to the range of activity ongoing in the museum every day. As part of the development of this exciting new visitor experience, we are currently working on the object displays that will make up the self-guided visitor route. Several displays will be co-produced with our local communities and this autumn we started our first co-production project.

School 21 is a school for 4 – 18 year olds based in Stratford and ten students are currently working with the V&A East team to develop one of the displays for the V&A East Storehouse as part of their Real-World Learning Programme.This programme provides work experience opportunities for students, who spend half a day a week in a workplace over four months, and are tasked with solving an authentic problem for the organisation. 

The group began working with us at the beginning of October and the project will run until February. Working with the V&A East team, the ten young people were asked to create an object that responds to the vast collection of chairs in the Furniture department at the V&A. This photo essay shares some moments from the project so far. A second blog post in February will show the final object and will speak to the young people’s inspiration and messages behind their chair. 

“Why should I care about a chair?”

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In our first session with our group of young people, we asked the question “why should I care about a chair?” in the hope that it might inspire them to think of the importance that chairs could hold. As young people are our core audience at V&A East, this was an incredibly important exercise for us to understand their perspective on the collection, but also for them to think about how design plays an important role in our everyday lives. Initially rather indifferent to the value of chairs, we asked the group to walk around our offices and select a chair they wanted to present on. By the end of the workshop the group began to think about how chairs at school were different to chairs in an office or at home; the importance of comfort, how chairs hold different levels of cultural significance across the world and, importantly, how sitting in them made our young people feel. 

Exploring the collection

Having begun to explore why they should care about chairs, we wanted the group to get an understanding of the range and scale of the collection. The V&A has a large collection of chairs, which span time, geography, style and use, a significant number of which will be stored at the V&A East Storehouse. On the group’s first visit to the V&A, furniture curators Victoria Bradley and Johanna Agerman-Ross introduced the group to the museum’s collection of chairs on display in galleries at the V&A in South Kensington. They discussed the range of factors to consider when designing and studying chairs.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Here some of the group try out the interactive ‘Chair Bench’ in the Furniture Galleries designed by Gitta Gschwendtner. The piece invites visitors to sit down and consider furniture from unexpected perspectives. The bench was inspired by historic chairs displayed in the gallery, made from different woods and different techniques, elements of which Gschwendtner then playfully mismatched to highlight their differences. The group then ranked their favourite chairs on the basis of comfort and aesthetics. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Understanding the process 

At V&A East, the lens of the maker and making will be central to how we explore our collection. To create their object, the group have been working at Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, a public space dedicated to making and mending with open access to a fully equipped wood and metal workshop. Prior to developing a concept, we wanted our young people to meet with an expert maker to better understand the design process. On the group’s first visit to Blackhorse they had a tour of the workshops from Julie Lee,  Membership and Events Manager, and chatted to resident maker Adam Azmy about the process of designing and making furniture.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Creating a concept

Following visits to the V&A to discuss and be inspired by objects in the collection and the visit to Blackhorse Workshop to think about materials and the practicalities of making, the group came together to begin thinking about what they would like to make, their target user, and how the object would be made. The group pitched their concept to Katharine Daish, woodworker and technician at Blackhorse Workshop, who is the expert maker for the project and will facilitate the creation of the group’s object.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Following a series of concept development sessions, the group presented their proposal to Katharine to make a comfortable, flexible office chair suitable for Gen Z and Millennials inspired by social justice movements. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Making and modelling 

Under the supervision of Katharine Daish at Blackhorse Workshop, the group began a series of making experiments and tests that would continue to inform their design and develop their own making skills in preparation for realising the final object. 

Drilling and basic joinery

Our first making session saw the group, and members of the V&A East team, learning basic joinery skills. Working with drills, saws, mallets and marking gauges, the group was split into pairs and asked to showcase a halved joint.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Krasimir and Yasmine proudly showing off as the first pair in the group to complete their halved joint. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Modelling

In our second session, the group was tasked with creating a 1:1 scale cardboard and plywood model of their chair. The young people were left in charge of all major decisions, from the design of the chair, the materials that will be used, the measurements and the actual putting together of their separate elements.

Yasmine and Solomon thinking about where they would like the armrests to sit on the base of the chair.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Daria is leading on the backrest of the chair. Here, she is thinking about how the foam might be placed in the most ergonomic way to ensure that the sitter is comfortable. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Katharine inspecting the material and base of the chair, designed and built by Sahmara and Krasimir. The group opted for a white cotton for the armrests, seat and back of the chair as this will allow for their printed designs to stand out boldly to visitors at the V&A East Storehouse. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Screen-printing 

In the last session of 2021, the group began creating stencils and testing designs that they would want on the chair. They also worked closely with Katharine to decide on the final scale and sizing of their model, which will be displayed at the V&A East Storehouse. The group also began thinking about what to call their chair and what they wanted visitors to take away from the display. The shortlist of names currently includes “Chair21”, “Awareness Chair”, “Society Chair, “Dave”, “The 21st Century Chair” and “Iris”. Although the group are currently split in terms of what the name should be; they agreed that the interpretation should cover the importance of their political messages and that the chair should be a platform for things that are important to them today. 

Sahmara and Krasimir working on stencils to test for screenprinting process; supported by Jasmine Lee James, V&A East Curatorial Intern.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Katharine and Blerona test out the BLM stencils that were designed and made by the group.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lucas and Shahid celebrate the first three-colour screen-print on our testing board, the Palestine flag. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Next steps

Next year, our young people will work throughout January to build a scale model of their object for display at the V&A East Storehouse and, with the V&A East team, to finalise their interpretation.   

In February a second blog post will show the group’s final object and speak more about the young people’s inspiration for the design and the chair’s messaging. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Find out more

Blackhorse Workshop: Making and Community – a Q+A with Harriet Warden, Creative Director of Blackhorse Workshop and long-term collaborator and critical friend of V&A East.

About the author


V&A East
December 21, 2021

I am Lead Curator of the Public Network at the new Collections Research Centre at V&A East and am on secondment from the department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass.

More from Becky Knott
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