When creative thinkers are grasping for inspiration, there’s one piece of advice that’s likely to spur a breakthrough: put yourself in a child-like mindset. As adults, we tend to get stuck in rigid patterns of thinking that curtail our imaginations. Kids, on the other hand, have no such mental boundaries. Ask them to design an object that serves a particular function, and they’ll come up with ideas that evade our preconceived notions and sometimes even teach us new ways of thinking. One crucial lesson is that everything can be art. Why should a chair just be a chair when it can be a sculpture, too?
At New York’s Trinity School, art educator Bruce Edelstein has spent the last 18 years exploring the creativity of kids with The Grade Three Chair Project. Edelstein leads third graders at the private prep school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side through a process of designing and building their very own chair designs over a school semester. Weekly, hour-long workshops teach the seven to 10-year-old students to come up with creative concepts, sketch them out, and build scale models using paper before getting to the really fun part: construction.
In 2021, the kids came up with some of their most remarkable designs yet. The autumn semester program wasn’t just for third graders last year, but incorporated fourth graders as well, since school was disrupted due to the pandemic in 2020. In a recent interview, Edelstein explained how he adapted the program for the pandemic. Shifting to online learning for the design process was a unique challenge.
“We started by talking about the same ideas, of looking around you seeing that someone created all these things, whether it’s a faucet in your bathroom or a light fixture, that the whole idea of design is something we live in all the time, that they can participate in,” Edelstein says. “I didn’t get as involved with the question of could you actually make it. When we’re making it in wood, there are certain things you have to learn about how to connect the wood, whether it’s glueing and nailing, or using triangles to reinforce things like the leg against the seat.”
The kids got to make their designs a reality when in-person learning recommenced. Clearly skilled at prompting the kind of abstract thinking that leads to exciting designs, Edelstein asked the kids questions about their themes. He encouraged one student who wanted her chair to evoke ballet to think about what drew her to ballet in the first place, taking some of the ideas or shapes that were important to her, and using them in the chair’s form. The result is striking. The student imagined how she would stand in ballet and translated it to the chair, with an arm arched overhead and one leg being in a plié.
Some students focused on utility and pragmatism over artistic flair, combining chairs with other furniture like bookshelves, desks, or storage hooks. Others produced designs that look like the expensive works of renowned contemporary artists. It’s fascinating to see how they ignore the archetypal “chair” shape and simply think about how they want the chair to feel, or to serve them in particular. One unpainted piece twists and turns the basic shapes of the chair to create a one-armed seat with a circular side table. Another is shaped like an easel, another a wheelchair. Some have horns, fangs, and even the open jaws of an alligator as the seat.
“Allowing personal nuances to come out in your work is really important,” Edelstein notes. “And that’s what you see with these kids. They’re very much in touch with their feelings at this point in their lives. They’re not holding themselves back. They’re not editing themselves. They’re not wondering if it’s silly or not. I think as an adult, you look at them and you realize, maybe we can let go a little bit.”