From left: San Diego State University Assistant Professor of Furniture Matthew Hebert, Matthew John Bacher and Grace Jeffers, in front of Bacher's prize-winning chair at ICFF.
The winning design of the 13th Annual Wilsonart Challenges Student Chair Design Competition was unveiled yesterday at the launch of the 2017 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at New York's Javits Center.
San Diego State University (SDSU) student Matthew John Bacher's winning "A Piece of Tlaltecuhtli” entry fit in especially well with this year's competition theme “Borders, Boundaries and Mashup.” Inspired by the Tlaltecuhtli Monolith--a giant monolith found in 2006 at the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City—Bacher employed laminate in creating a piece that reflected both the politics of cultural appropriation and the often inaccurate cultural representation by those who appropriate.
"It's influenced by Chicano and Mexican artwork," said Bacher. "I worked through my feelings about appropriating from a culture, but not appropriately representing it."
In conceiving his chair, Bacher was himself the cultural appropriator, he said, basing it on the huge 12-ton Tlaltecuhtli sculptural monument--a full-length, ochre-colored figure against a red background—that took three years to restore after its discovery.
The monolith depicts the ocean-dwelling pre-Columbian deity Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord), who in Aztec mythology was torn apart by Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind and learning, and rival god Tezcatlipoca, with half the body thrown upwards to become the sky and stars, the other becoming the earth's land.
"It forces the sitter to feel like he's sitting on another culture," explained Bacher, "and also connotes how museums rarefy culture."
Bacher also noted how cultural appropriation is intrinsic in SDSU's own controversial Aztec Warrior mascot—at times affectionately called Monty Montezuma, after the ancient Aztec ruler—that has been called out as racist in the manner of the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins logos.
According to design historian and Wilsonart Challenges program director Grace Jeffers, laminate was the perfect material for Bacher's piece.
"Milano Rosso--the pattern he selected--mimics real stone," said Jeffers. "The chair itself is a statement about appropriation, and the use of Wilsonart surface material emphasizes this message. The judges unanimously agreed that this chair was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before and the story was smart and compelling."
A leading provider of total engineered surfacing solutions, Wilsonart presents the Wilsonart Challenges as a means of fostering the careers of emerging furniture designers in North America. Each year it selects a design school, where it sponsors a class and the competition for students to create a unique handmade chair, not intended for mass production, using Wilsonart Laminate in meeting a specific design goal.
San Diego State University was chosen because its furniture department, which is known for balancing craft and concept, is rated among the top five in the country. Award-winning former department chair Wendy Maruyama, who was an important post-modern artistic furniture influence, came out of retirement to help the students, who were taught by current associate professor of furniture Matthew Hebert, himself an award-winning furniture designer.
Besides designing and building a chair, the students learn how to prepare for a major trade show. In winning the competition, Bacher received a scholarship and the trip to New York to premiere his chair at ICFF.
"Interpreting ideas and emotions and personalizing them through design is a tremendous achievement, and this year's students, once again, have created beautiful, transcending works of art," said Wilsonart marketing communications director Alison DeMartino. "With a challenging theme and a multicultural environment like San Diego, the students have magnificently captured the many passions running throughout the country with dramatic chair designs that celebrate diversity and freedom."