AMES, Iowa — Two Iowa State University students went from woodworking novices to chair design champions with a simple yet innovative and elegant project.

Iowa State industrial design seniors Samuel Christianson of Mason City and Nathan Miklo of Arnolds Park won first place and a $1,000 cash prize in the “Design for Production – Post Secondary” category of the 2019 AWFS Fresh Wood student furniture competition. Hosted by the Association of Woodworking and Furnishings Suppliers, the competition recognizes outstanding construction and design achievements by students from leading high school and post-secondary woodworking programs in North America.

Christianson and Miklo were honored for their innovative “flat-pack” chair in an awards ceremony in July at the AWFS Fair in Las Vegas. The students developed the chair as an Iowa State Focus Grant project last year with the guidance of faculty mentor Matthew Obbink, assistant teaching professor in industrial design. All three received free airfare, lodging and admission from AWFS to attend the fair, where they networked with industry professionals, students and faculty from programs around the country.

“The show was of a very high caliber and showed us what is technically possible when it comes to different woodworking techniques,” Christianson said. “It helped us look at the design and fabrication of furniture in a whole new light.”

The team received “awesome feedback from the judges and increased our connections with different companies that also liked the chair enough to want to purchase it in the future,” he says. “Nate and I now have plans to produce these chairs for possible sale.”

Essential elements

The students created a chair that could occupy different spaces (dining room, living room, home office, etc.) and serve different needs, Christianson said. The primary goal of the project “was to strip what ‘design’ is down to its most essential elements. We wanted a chair that uses the least number of parts possible to cut down on future production costs and at the same time could be elegant and provide simple luxury for everyone.”

The team’s “72.5 Chair” has long walnut legs joined with floating tenon joints, and a back and seat made of one piece of leather sandwiched between two pieces of Baltic birch plywood. One of the biggest challenges the students faced was finding a way to bend the plywood without breaking it.

“From the beginning, we loved the idea of the seat bending near the middle, but all of our early prototypes used only plywood, which led to lots of breakage,” Christianson said. “We questioned the longevity of just kerfing (cutting slots into the wood to allow it to flex, which weakens it) and started looking at materials that could withstand thousands of bends. We decided leather could provide this flexibility.”

With support from the Focus Grant — a funding program for creative projects done outside the classroom — Christianson and Miklo made six small models and four large-scale models to test and finalize their design. Obbink offered guidance on leg joinery, measurements and processing of the raw materials.

“Matt has a very deep knowledge of furniture design and practical experience, which helped us transform our design from something on paper to a final product that is extremely robust,” Miklo said.

“With this flat-pack chair — meaning it can be disassembled and shipped easily — these students truly took the less-is-more approach,” said Obbink, who was a finalist in the 2003 Fresh Wood competition as an integrated studio arts major at Iowa State.

“The two-piece base effortlessly slides and locks together. Then the seat and back assembly easily bends to conform and lock into the base structure. Sam and Nate worked so well together; I just showed them the tools and techniques needed, and they took the reins,” he said. “For two students with little to no prior woodworking experience, they blew me away.”


Sam Christianson, Industrial Design senior, samueljc@iastate.edu
Nathan Miklo, Industrial Design senior, nmiklo@iastate.edu
Matt Obbink, Industrial Design, (515) 450-3994, obbinker@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289, hsauer@iastate.edu