Sitting Pretty Chilly

A student’s take on sustainable, yet cold, furniture

It’s the middle of February; most of us just want to sleep the rest of winter away and awake when it’s spring. Not so for artist/designer Hongtao Zhou. He is making the most of this bitterly cold winter and thoroughly enjoying himself in the process.These days Zhou, an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, can be found on the frozen Lake Mendota, having coffee with the locals and marveling at the way people interact with his latest installation, Icy Furniture. “Madison is a fantastic place to work with the weather,” he says.

On the lake with a view of the UW-Madison Memorial Union Terrace shoreline
(Photos: Hongtao Zhou, unless otherwise noted)

Drawing on his knowledge on green design, Zhou has found perhaps the most sustainable way of making furniture. “I came up with the idea to make snow furniture because humans need to work with nature instead of working against it.” The materials used for producing the life-sized chairs, tables, and “snow bowls for ice-cream” come from the lake itself. And as the weather gets warmer, the sculptures continue their green life-cycle as they dissolve back into the lake from whence they came. “They’re not melting away—they’re going back to the lake,” he explains.

Hongtao Zhou at work
(Photos:Susan Frikken)

Zhou, who previously received a Ph.D. in Furniture and Design Manufacturing from Perdue University and an MS in Furniture Design from Northeast Forestry University in China, has, in between his studies, managed to find the time to regularly visit the icy furniture. “It’s really amazing how people are reacting to it. They’re very curious about what’s going on and they want to talk to you about it.”

Zhou’s snow bowls

Zhou has several other projects in the works. Indeed, while we were on the phone, he was on his way to give a lecture to a group on designers in Chicago. And this summer he’s producing a video project on the evolution of the icy furniture with the hope that “climate art” can help raise awareness of sustainable design.

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