Letting the Chip Fall

A Parsons student’s chair captures the motion of flipping through Wilsonart laminates.

Wilsonart’s four-year-old “Make a Statement” ad campaign has turned the laminate chip—that humble tool for specifying patterns and colors—into something of a design icon. They’ve sunk it in formaldehyde, reflected it off a disco ball, floated it in a cappuccino, molded it in chocolate, and spilled it from a fishbowl, among other things. And for the past two years, in recognition of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, their May ads have seen the chip take the form of a chair. “You wouldn’t believe how many people called our hotline and asked if they could buy the chair,” Wilsonart design consultant Grace Jeffers says. Feedback was so strong that they created a special program for the “Make a Statement” campaign in which they invited students to conceive the next “chip chair.”

“We thought, If we’re going to keep doing these chair ads, the chair should have a story behind it,” marketing manager Alison DeMartino says. “We didn’t want to do a real chair that would be put into production. We wanted something conceptual, so we approached design schools.” The program launched last fall at Parsons School of Design, in New York. “Originally we thought we would have the class design it, but Tony [Whitfield, the head of the product design department] thought each student should take a stab at it. For them it was a chance to take an assignment from a real business, interpret it, and present it back to us,” DeMartino says.

Twenty-two juniors in a furniture-design studio were asked to come up with a functional chair that featured the chip shape. Because the students needed to understand the material they were working with, Jeffers gave a presentation on the history, production, and performance of laminate. After eight weeks the students presented a variety of sketches and models—some modular, others aggressively conceptual, and many so elaborately stylish that they looked like they belonged in a satellite show at the next furniture fair.

“The winning design conveys an idea of motion and a kind of animation that is unusual,” Whitfield says. Jeffers, who likens the design to Constructivist art, adds, “It was so different that you would have to look twice, and that’s the purpose of an ad.” Rebecca Liu, who received a $1,000 scholarship from Wilsonart, conceived a chair that is equal parts sculpture and design. Its functional core is shadowed by two smaller forms that tilt away at increasing angles. “People who use these chips flip through them,” Liu says. “That’s where the idea came from—the motion of looking through the chips, of opening them up like poker cards.”

Wilsonart is so pleased with the results that they are taking the chair beyond the ad campaign and devoting their ICFF booth to it. “We’d very much like to continue this program,” DeMartino says of next year’s ad. “We’d like to go to different design schools.”

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