Katie Lee Wilsonart 6 Shades of Gray Chair
“6 Shades of Grey,” designed by University of Oregon Student Katie Lee, the winner of “Wilsonart Challenges” 2013 Design Competition.

This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Wilsonart.  Wilsonart has been a leading manufacturer of decorative surfaces for more than 50 years.

Today’s students are the designers of tomorrow.  Seeing this first-hand was a highlight of this year’s ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair), thanks to Wilsonart’s invitation for me to view the winning chair and six chair finalists in their Ninth Annual student chair design competition. Entitled “Wilsonart Challenges,” the annual student design scholarship program was founded to foster the careers of emerging furniture designers in North America. Each year, the competition challenges students at a designated design school to create a unique chair that uses Wilsonart Laminate to answer a specific design challenge.

Wilsonart Challenge 2013 Chair Competition
All finalists in the “Wilsonart Challenges” 2013 Student Competition, displayed at ICFF.

This year Wilsonart challenged University of Oregon students to design iconic chairs using Wilsonart® Laminate. 2013’s theme was chosen based on the popularity of coffee houses and tea salons in the Pacific Northwest and the rich design history found in these shops. The original café chair, “No. 14” by the Austrian Thonet company, was the first mass-produced bentwood dining chair in the 1800s. Wilsonart’s chair competition gives special consideration to lightweight and innovative use of materials, two qualities chair No. 14 was praised for.

Katie Lee Wilsonart Chair
The “6 Shades of Grey” Chair, University of Oregon student Katie Lee’s winning design, shown on display at ICFF 2013.

The winning chair, “6 Shades of Grey,” by University of Oregon student Katie Lee mixes new materials and classic chair elements, creating a unique interpretation of the typical café chair found in coffee houses and tea salons. “By combining laminate tiles with canvas, Lee developed a completely new material combination that she then used to upholster the arms and back of her chair. I have never seen laminate used in this way,” explains Alison Pulver DeMartino, Wilsonart Director of Marketing Communications.

Katie Lee Wilsonart Chair Detail
Lee used laminate tiles with canvas to upholster her chair design.

Regarding her concept for the chair, Lee suggests, “Imagine running into a warm cafe in Eugene or Portland, Oregon on a gray rainy day. You are seeking comfort from the hot coffee in your hands, from the chair you sit on and from the environment you sit in. A local artist’s painting hangs on the wall, the furniture may be choice vintage pieces or mismatched thrift store finds, and yet the space is curated to have a feeling of newness. I wanted to create a chair that reflected the essence of these cafés.”

Katie Lee Wilsonart Chair Detail
Detail showing Katie’s chair upholstery with laminate tiles.

Ms. Lee continues, “My design evolved from experimenting with materials, by combining materials that interested me, cutting them into shapes and arranging them into patterns. Through adhering laminate triangle tiles to cotton canvas, I created a new material which I then used as a “pelt” draped over the backrest of the chair form.”

Katie Lee Wilsonart Chair Detail
Lee explains, “The red triangles on either side of the chair arms are my favorite details in this design. The red triangle is an homage to the iconic Wilsonart sample chip. It almost looks like the tip of the arms were dipped into a bucket of red paint.”

Of the six additional chair design finalists, the following two were my favorite finalists:

Jordan Millar Wilsonart Chair Design
The “Silvia” Chair, designed by Jordan Millar.

Designed by Jordan Millar, the “Silvia” Chair is an updated version of a bentwood chair. Like wood, laminate is a rigid material, but the chair’s organic curve suggests otherwise. Drawing inspiration from the curling of leaves and flower petals, “the form is technically advanced but with the appearance of simplicity. Genuine white oak legs sit alongside oak-patterned laminate in a subtle juxtaposition of materials.

Jordan Millar Wilsonart Chair Design Detail
A detail of the “Silvia” Chair, designed by Jordan Millar.

Designed by Justin Mellot, the “Derrida Chair” explores, “what is a chair?” And, “what is a not chair?,” in a play on perception.

Justin Mellot Wilsonart Chair Design
The “Derrida” Chair, designed by Justin Mellot.

When viewed in profile, the chair is meant to disappear. As the viewer changes perception, however, the “not chair,” the French chair in the Louis style of the French court takes form. The question arises, “Which chair am I perceiving?”

Justin Mellot Wilsonart Chair Design Detail
The “Derrida Chair,” designed by Justin Mellot.

Congratulations to Katie and all six finalists! As I wrote at the beginning of this post: today’s students are the designers of tomorrow.  Thank you Wilsonart for inviting me to see this first-hand at “Wilsonart Challenges” at ICFF.

Images / Wilsonart and Sarah Sarna /

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Author: Sarah Sarna

Interior Designer and Editor helping intelligent women unlock their style and own it, à la: decorating, fashion, beauty, and beyond.