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Pure Michigan Woods Design Challenge Turns Furniture Design Into Economic Engine

Posted May 7, 2013 in Student

What’s made in Michigan? Incredible raw materials. Stunning original design. And partnerships that lead to greater economic prosperity across the state.

On April 30, a group of students from Kendall College of Art and Design learned first-hand how design can translate into dollars when the winners of the first Pure Michigan Woods Design Challenge were announced.

The Michigan Pure Wood Works Co-Op reached out to Kendall Dean Max Shangle with the idea for a contest that would highlight value-added wood products and utilize northern Michigan’s rich supply of both natural resources and talent. The goal was to generate student-designed furniture that represented “Pure Michigan,” was made with materials from Michigan, and could be completely designed and manufactured in Michigan. With support from the Michigan Economic Development Company (MEDC), the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments, contest organizer Dennis Valkanoff, and Kendallinstructors Monty Simpson and Bruce Mulder, the contest quickly came together.

All of Kendall’s Furniture Design classes, from entry level to the capstone course, used the challenge as the basis for a four-week class project, with the option to enter their finished work in the contest at the end. A field of 13 contestants presented their work to a panel of judges including Scott Glenn, Vice President of Merchandising for Slumberland Furniture, Aime Fitzhugh, Vice President of Merchandising forGardner-White Furniture, and Steve Silver, CEO of Steve Silver Co., one of the largest occasional furniture companies in the U.S. Additional judges included Amanda Holberton and Lowell Eastman from Michigan Pure Wood Works, and contest organizer Dennis Valkanoff.

The judges evaluated the collections based on how well they represented the theme, aligned with market trends, and met the Co-Op’s manufacturing criteria. Valkanoff said the panel’s discussions revolved around three key points. “First, was there a true focus on making it a pure Michigan product? Secondly, we had to analyze the materials and manufacturability--and we determined we could manufacture anything. The final discussion was about retail. As I told the students, it may be beautiful, but I want to make you some money on the side.”

Michelle De La Rosa presenting to panel.

While the contest was originally designed to select two runners up and a first prize, the judges were so impressed by the ideas they saw that they asked to add an additional winner. Mark Kinsler, Vice President of Business Attraction for MEDC, was invited to announce the awards. The three runners up, in unranked order, were “Lily” Zhengyi Hou, Evan Fay, and Lane Risdon, who each received a cash prize of $500. The first prize of $1,000 was awarded to Christopher Eitel.

Christoper Eitel (center) with judges Holberton, Eastman, Glenn and Fitzhugh.

Each of the four finalists will work with the Co-Op to have their collections produced and presented at a Michigan show “like a mini High Point,” according to Simpson. Michigan Pure Wood Works will start production of the top three designs in the summer of 2013, and Pure Michigan Furniture will be available in Michigan stores in the fall of 2013. All four winning students will receive royalties from future sales.

Kinsler told the students, “When I was asked to be a part of this, our goal was to help create more and better jobs with natural resources made in Michigan. The most important asset is you, the designers. You’re exactly the kind of talent we don’t want to leave the state, so we have to provide an opportunity for you to find a fulfilling job, work on creative and important projects, and make some money to earn a living for yourself and your family.”

Judge Aime Fitzhugh was enthusiastic about both the goals and results of the event. “This is the kind of program we need to inspire young people in the furniture industry,” he said. “Watching them take an idea from paper to product is very inspiring. It creates opportunities for students and production, and in the end it resulted in great designs that we can convert into retail.” 

Steve Silver was so enthusiastic that he has offered Hou an internship. She will join him at Steve Silver Co. in Texas for the summer.

Looking back at the process, Simpson said, “This has been a great opportunity for all of the students to be able to design products. Any time they’re tasked with working with information, doing drawings, and carrying their ideas all the way through production, it’s a great experience. It was interesting to see how each of the students chose different elements that represented Pure Michigan. Each of their collections had something that the judges liked. They did a fantastic job, and I could see every one of their collections being placed and sold.”


Pure Michigan Design: Contest winners share their interpretations of the theme

“Lily” Zhengyi Hou, Junior in Furniture Design

My inspiration is natural curves. I use curves for each piece. From nature, I think about the waves and the water, the Great Lakes that are famous in Michigan. I use a Michigan wood, which is cherry. I also use a lot of metal and glass in my design.


Hou's TV stand and sofa table.


Evan Fay, Junior in Furniture Design

My interpretation came directly from my hometown, which is Traverse City, Michigan. Up there, there are a lot of beautiful orchards and vineyards, so naturally that was a design inspiration. More specifically, I used produce crates as design direction to launch off. They set some pretty good parameters with materials and Michigan, so I picked my favorite things: cherry wood and copper, and chose pieces I would want in my home. 


Fay's bench and coffee table.


Lane Risdon, Senior

I’m from North Carolina, and living here was a huge culture shock. I grew up on the Atlantic Ocean. One of the things I would do to feel like I was back home is drive to Grand Haven and sit on the shore of Lake Michigan. I designed this with blues and rope turnings and nautical chain stylized metal fretwork in honor of the Great Lakes, and I used black walnut, satin nickel, and a robin’s egg blue paint.

Risdon's collection on display for the judges.


Christopher Eitel, Senior

I interpreted Pure Michigan through different industries that are known from an outside perspective. Being from this area, I know that the auto industry is a big thing here in Michigan. The timber industry is also something that I’ve learned about being here in Michigan and in furniture design. Other outside perspectives that have to do with the wintertime and the weather and the seasons led to some of my decision making on my designs. I tried to interpret how I view it as not a native Michigander, but a Michigander now.

Eitel's "Cracked Ice" cocktail table.

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