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The Beauty of Beech & Bamboo

September 30, 2019

Intent on highlighting the diverse talents in our community, RISD tapped the expertise of two alumni faculty members to furnish North Hall, the new six-story student housing facility designed by Architecture alum Nader Tehrani BArch 86 and his team at NADAAA.

Furniture Design professors John Dunnigan MFA 80 ID and Lothar Windels BID 96 worked together to respond to NADAAA’s contemporary architecture and model RISD’s commitment to sustainable design by creating a durable and cost-effective collection of furniture using just two environmentally-friendly materials: beech and bamboo.

In 2005 Dunnigan partnered with two other Furniture Design faculty members—Rosanne Somerson (now RISD’s president) and Peter Walker (now teaching back home in Australia)—to design the DEZCO collection of furnishings for 15 West when that 500-bed residence hall first opened. So in July 2018 when he and Windels were asked to consider this new commission, they drew from the experience at 15 West to inform their work.

Called Rhye (a wry play on its rye color and its Rhode Island roots), the new furniture is built with the same materials as the earlier collection: a combination of solid European beech, which is PEFC certified (the European equivalent to FSC/Forest Stewardship Council certification), and bamboo plywood, made from a fast-growing natural and carbon-neutral resource.

“We use bamboo ply without any edge-banding,” Dunnigan explains, which “eliminates that part of the manufacturing process along with the toxicity often associated with producing sheet goods for furniture. It’s also really durable,” he adds, noting that the materials in the original DEZCO pieces have withstood “15 years of use and abuse.”

With durability as one of their primary goals, Dunnigan and Windels worked fast to create drawings and models that would allow them enough time to consider various
manufacturers with an equal commitment to responsible practice. Last fall they selected New England Woodcraft in Forest Dale, VT to produce 155 bed frames, desks,
chests and tables, and Saloom Furniture in Winchendon, MA to make 165 chairs (working in collaboration with Mattiazzi in Milan, Italy).

“The process took a full year but all the
furniture was delivered on time and on budget.”

The key to creating high-quality pieces that cost no more than standard dorm furniture is to “work with simple geometry to allow for streamlined manufacturing without losing elements of visual interest as well as physical comfort,” Windels says.

“Lothar and I traveled to all the manufacturers to inspect prototypes, make changes and eventually approve production samples,” Dunnigan says. “The process took a full year, but all the furniture was delivered on time and on budget.”

And though the Rhye collection was developed specifically for North Hall, given that it’s durable, affordable furniture designed for small spaces, it’s clearly got the potential for a broader market.

 - Written by Liisa Silander/ Rhode Island School of Design

 - Photos by Erik Gould/ Rhode Island School of Design

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