Wilsonart Student Chair Design Competition: CUBE CLASS! Hands on Laminate

Wilsonart Student Chair Design Competition: CUBE CLASS! Hands on Laminate

We have been covering this year’s Wilsonart Student Chair Design Competition, lead by Grace Jeffers, Design Historian and materials specialist. This year, students from San Diego State University (SDSU), under the guidance of professor Matt Hebert, have been designing and building chairs on the theme of BORDERS / BOUNDARIES / MASHUP. The competition sponsor, Wilsonart, is asking the students to explore this theme utilizing Wilsonart’s signature laminate materials in their chair designs.

Clinton Motley laminates his cube. Photo by Matthew Hebert

Cube Class is a hands-on experience where students have a chance to actually fabricate with laminate. It is often a powerful moment of change and a class that transforms their understanding of the material. “Having taught this class for more than 10 years, I know there are predictable moments when everything changes for the student,” noted Program Manager Grace Jeffers. “As they work with laminate, their understanding shifts and many students realize they need to modify their planned chair designs. Because most of our students have never fabricated with laminate before, they have a preconceived idea of what the material is and how it behaves. Cube Class changes everything.”

Molly Mancuso laying on the water-based contact cement. Photo by Aleya Lanteigne

In order to familiarize students with the material, Wilsonart sends out a technical team to host a hands-on workshop that is lovingly dubbed Cube Class. This year, Wilsonart sent Scott Leonard and Herman Ratliff from the Technical Services Department. Wilsonart is fully dedicated to training people to use their materials to the highest standards. As a result, they developed a special technical training program called “Fabrication University” or Fab-U, which not only covers all the basics of what is laminate and how it is made but also gives people the opportunity to participate in building. Shop class and technical education have fallen from popularity in U.S. schools. While a handful of students may have grown up building things, usually with their dads, most are entering this class with little or no experience. Building a full-scale chair out of laminate is a daunting task for a professional let alone a beginner. This training becomes critical in helping the students successfully complete the class.

Overview of the studio during the laminate workshop. Photo by Aleya Lanteigne

Laminate is a surfacing material that is unique in its behavior and function. It may be a veneer like wood veneer but when it comes to woodworking, the lay-up and finishing are very different. Laminate is famous for the brown line edge, which is the phenolic resin and Kraft paper core exposed (although there are some laminates now with a colored core to match the decorative surface). Cubes are composed of planes and edges. This form gives the students 12 edges on which to perfect their routing and filing techniques.

The reality of laminate is that it is more than just a pattern or color; the edge is also intrinsic to the material. Cube class teaches fabricators how to minimize the edge so as to maximize the decorative face.

The tech team arrives with tools, adhesives, pre-constructed MDF cubes and five pieces of laminate, enough for pairs of students to build their own cube. Students learn how to work with various adhesives including canister, hose and gun (for on-site jobs), roll and brush on (using Wilsonart H20), and aerosol adhesive (700 aerosol). Different adhesives are selected based on regional and site-specific regulations, applications, and environments as well as dry time.

Herman Ratliff waves laminate over the contact cement to accelerate drying. Photo by Aleya Lanteigne

“There is a great art to installing laminate, so the material looks beautiful,” explains Professor Matthew Hebert.

Ashley Andersen, one of the students, describes, “Once my partner and I got all the sides glued on the cube, when it came to routing the edges flush, it was a lot harder than I had anticipated simply because I compared this experience to the times in the past that I have routed wood veneer edges. The laminate is thicker and while it is stronger than wood veneer, it is also brittle. It also was difficult making sure we didn’t accidently shave off the decorative face of the other edges of the laminated sides of the cubes. And yet, laminate is pretty forgiving in a lot of ways. I especially found the spray adhesive glue to be my favorite to work with simply because it really fascinated me on how it would adhere the piece of laminate flat and be so smooth. I realized there is a level of high standard of craftsmanship that I need to hold myself to when working with this material.”

One of the prerequisites for a school to receive this class / competition is that they have an emphasis on building. Student Amalia Soerlien said, “I liked that we got the chance to build with laminate on our own and not just look at demonstrations. It helped me to more deeply understand how the laminate behaves and how you apply it correctly.” This experience, in turn, influences the designs of their chairs.

Wilsonart’s “Fab-U” is held in cities across the country throughout the year, open to professional designers, fabricators and installers interested in honing their skills and learning new techniques. For more information about Fab-U, contact your local Wilsonart Distributor.


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