February 24, 2021
Child’s Play: The Grade Three Chair Project
For the past eighteen years, art instructor Bruce Edelstein has been running the Grade Three Chairs project at New York’s Trinity School. Leading a class of third grade students through the process of designing, building, and decorating their own unique chair, the program is helping kids bring their imagination to life in stunningly original pieces, some of which wouldn’t seem out of place in a contemporary design studio.
Across a school semester, Edelstein holds weekly, hour-long workshops where he guides the children through the entire production process. He starts by introducing the kids to the idea that every piece of furniture around them required someone to design and create it, encouraging them to see how they can participate in shaping the world they live in. After discussing what actually makes a chair – questioning, for example, whether a chair needs to have four legs – students create sketches of their own concepts, often inspired by their favourite animals and toys as well as their imagination. When the project began in the early 2000s, Edelstein left a lot more time for the kids to come up with their original ideas, but he found the children were often more spontaneous than he initially expected. ‘[T]hey just come up with things in a flash,’ he says.
[I]t's actually a lesson I think we can learn as adults: to trust our intuition and just go with it, not to question ourselves so much.
– BRUCE EDELSTEIN, ART INSTRUCTOR BEHIND GRADE THREE CHAIRS
The students get to have real hands-on experience bringing their ideas to life, learning new skills while also keeping full creative control over their project. After experimenting with scaled paper models, and with careful safety oversight from Edelstein, children get to actually build their chairs out of pinewood planks, cutting the boards with toolbox saws and nailing all the pieces into place. Once the structure is done, Edelstein gives the students a ‘quick lecture’ on using colour in design and the different effects of painting and staining, before letting them decorate their chairs as they please. This level of responsibility gives the children a sense of independence, as they know they are creating something uniquely theirs.
The variety of the final products the children produce is a testament to the power of allowing their individuality into every aspect of the process. Many of the chairs use familiar imagery in creative ways, from a bench resembling a tree with moveable leaves to a seat that places users in a gaping alligator mouth, while others demonstrate a more abstract approach. The children notably embrace Edelstein’s lessons about chair legs, with many designing out-of-the-box structures that sit upon tripods or large crossing panels. Instead of legs, one chair features semi-circular rockers painted to resemble a boat on rolling waves, while another child was inspired to create a ‘twisted’ chair, where everything from the diagonal back to the round, mismatched armrest is turned in a different direction. Edelstein was particularly impressed by this little designer, electing to photograph her chair before it was painted ‘so you could clearly see how she used the shapes’.
Grade Three Chairs teaches practical skills and new perspectives to a new generation of designers, allowing their unfettered creativity to impress us all. Their whimsical and often thoughtful works are hugely impressive for their age, a reminder of the beauty we can produce when we are given the confidence and opportunity to be creative.
For more out-of-the-box design, see our feature on Sophie Meier’s Skimau figurines.