Designs crafted by students and faculty in Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research (CDR) took the stage at the 2017 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City last week.

A team from the School of Architecture + Design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering showcased their work as one of 750 international presenters invited to ICFF, North America’s premier platform for contemporary design. The annual event challenges industry leaders and emerging new talent to share their visions of “what’s best and what’s next” in contemporary furniture. Held May 21-24 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the event drew more than 35,000 visitors seeking a glimpse of the future of design.

Virginia Tech’s exhibition bridged disciplines and nations, featuring work from art, architecture, industrial design, and mechanical engineering students and faculty, as well as engagement with industry, academic, and design partners in the U.S., Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Australia, and Austria.

Entitled Technology and Tradition: Explorations at the Intersection of High Tech and High Craft, the exhibit showcased the convergence of computational design, digital fabrication, and locally appropriate, user-centric products. It also offered a snapshot of design trajectories in a range of materials, including wood, glass, metal, textiles, and clay.

Exhibited works included a suite of locally sourced and manufactured furniture developed by Virginia Tech students in collaboration with students from the Kabuga Technical Secondary School in the Kamonyi District of the Southern Province of Rwanda. The work is part of an ongoing partnership between the CDR and MASS Design Group, a Boston- and Kigali, Rwanda-based design office and founder of the African Design Centre

The School of Architecture and Design team presenting at the ICFF.

Architecture team in front of exhibit at ICFF.
The team from the School of Architecture + Design at the ICFF. From left to right: Architecture student Michael Folta, Professor Robert Dunay, graduate student Edward Coe, Assistant Professor Nathan King, and wood shop craftsman Jonathan Rugh.

Last year, Jonathan Rugh and Mark Leach, from the School of Architecture + Design’s wood shop, accompanied CDR co-director and assistant professor Nathan King to Rwanda to lead students in designing and fabricating the furniture.

“Due to its hands-on nature, the teaching of craft easily translates across language barriers, providing an excellent opportunity for rich international engagement,” said Rugh.

The exhibit also included examples of advanced research in design robotics and additive manufacturing, with a 10-foot-high robotically fabricated spatial structure and several large-format robotically 3-D printed objects.

Edward Coe, a master’s student in architecture from Middlebury, Connecticut, who manages the School of Architecture + Design’s newly opened “bot shop” said, “The interplay between traditional ways of making and digital fabrication creates an environment that encourages new design potential and affords opportunities for students across disciplines.”

Professor Robert Dunay, director of the Center for Design Research, said the exhibit reflects the School of Architecture + Design’s long history of design thinking, linking conceptualization with making.

“Through international engagement, the Virginia Tech Center for Design Research encourages student research collaboration across disciplines to examine and push the boundaries of design and the framework of education, bringing teaching and practice face to face with material and technology,” Dunay said. “This exhibit embodies the relationship of hand craft and the digital – a novel yet consistent pedagogical approach at the school that empowers students from across the design disciplines to navigate the new frontiers of design practice.”

Rugh and Leach will return to Rwanda this summer to teach a course on materials and craft at the African Design Center in Kigali, and the CDR is presently organizing a studio for the design and development of a state-of-the-art library for Mzuzu University in Malawi to be constructed in 2018-19.

Other contributors included:

College of Architecture and Urban Studies:

Martha Sullivan, assistant professor of practice in industrial design

Martin Angst, master’s student in architecture from Hamburg, Germany

Jason Cusack, master’s student in architecture from Griswold, Connecticut

Liz Ligouri, M.F.A. in creative technologies student from Brooklyn, New York

Michael Folta, architecture student from Blacksburg, Virginia

Yibin Yang, architecture student from Guangzhou, China

Sarah Ahart, industrial design student from Sterling, Virginia

Jacqueline Jennette, industrial design student from Virginia Beach, Virginia

Michael Watanabe, industrial design student from Salatiga, Indonesia

College of Engineering:

Chris Williams, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

Joseph Kubalak, Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering from Franklin, Tennessee

Cameron Buss, mechanical engineering student from Blacksburg, Virginia

The work was supported by the Autodesk Foundation and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technologies at Virginia Tech, through an Autodesk BUILD grant, and by Universal Fibers. It was conducted in collaboration with MASS Design Group; Jeff Snider and Matt Tolbert in the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design metal fabrication laboratories; Gustav Fagerström and Steve Lewis of Walter P. Moore Engineering; Nick Cote, Matt Jezyk, and Mike Kirschner of Autodesk; Aziza Cyamani, MASS intern; and Emmanuel Kalisa and Aziza Cyamani, carpenters at Kalka and Partners in Rwanda.


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