Amy Forsyth, an associate professor of art and architecture, is patiently explaining the virtues of milk-based paint, which she lightly applies to the rounded leg of a table she designed and is readying for an upcoming furniture show in St. Louis titled “Function Follows Form.”
“The really great thing about milk paint,” she says, “is that it only comes in about 10 different colors, but you could mix up any of the pigments to get the color you want.”
The half-dozen students who listen intently as Forsyth tones down a pinkish hue with a thin layer of hunter green will eventually turn their attention away from their professor’s triangular-topped table and return to the process of creating their own dove-tailed boxes.
The boxes are the most recent assignment in a new furniture-making class that Forsyth introduced to the Lehigh campus in the Fall semester—a long-anticipated development that attracted both undergraduate and graduate students who wanted to expand their understanding of the often under-appreciated art.
“I wanted them to have a better understanding of how furniture is made,” says Forsyth, whose unique designs have won her numerous awards, such as a state Artist’s Grant, and have appeared in many venues throughout the country. “And that goes with a better understanding of design in the larger sense—a broader strategy—as well as the sense of creating something with their hands. It’s really a process of making ideas material.”
A real learning experience
Forsyth is aided in the process by Brian Slocum ’97, a former technical director in Lehigh’s theatre department who now serves as managing director for design arts. Slocum helped design and supply the wood-working shops in Chandler-Ullman, as well as a metal/other materials lab in the Wilbur Powerhouse.
Funds for furnishing the furniture-making shops were allocated three years ago, Forsyth says, but space wasn’t available until recently. Forsyth and Slocum wasted no time in acquiring top-of-the-line precision machinery, including lathes, tablesaws, bandsaws and planers, which allow students to gain a greater appreciation of the woods as they work with them.
“Before this, we were running out to Home Depot for supplies and working with whatever was available,” Forsyth says. “Now, we get to use hardwoods like mahogany and walnut, woods with a really beautiful character.”
Art and architecture major Shayne Sobel ’04 joined his fellow students in noting that the course enhanced their appreciation of the furniture-making process.
“You look at things differently,” Sobel says. “As an architecture major, I was used to much bigger projects. But with something like this, you notice every detail, you notice the quality of the workmanship instead of just the cost.”
Justin McCutcheon ’06, an architecture/civil engineering major, was drawn to the furniture-making course after learning about the process through his father, a hobby carpenter.
“The whole idea of working with my hands is appealing to me,” he says. “And with this class, I can take an idea all the way through. I can visualize it, I can design it on paper, I can build it, and then I can use it and appreciate it as a functional object. And even as I live with it, I can refine the design. It’s not just a concept, it’s a real learning experience.”