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Discovery Discovery February 2001
Main Page On the Web Patents Corner Featured Stories


Furniture Students Find
Pleasure in Invention


by Evelyn Boswell

Sean Goodrick Sarah Hastings had never worked construction. She'd never built a chair for the family dinner table at Shepherd.

But there she was, wearing safety goggles and ear plugs, shoving wood through a planer. She explained when she finished how she planned to make a telephone table out of mahogany and hard maple.

"I've never done anything like this before," said Hastings, a fifth-year architecture student at MSU-Bozeman.

Neither had some of the other students in the fall furniture-building class at MSU, but that didn't matter.

"I work with students at all levels," said instructor Richard Penziner. "Within a class will be some people who have more advanced techniques. Others are absolutely green. Even though it's a group, I do work with them somewhat independently."

Penziner is in his fifth year of teaching upper-level architect students how to make furniture. A sculptor who evolved into furniture building, he suggested the course as a way to teach design. The class is optional and held in Cheever Hall twice a week in the evenings. By the time the semester-long course is over, students have done everything from designing to building their own furniture. Projects during the fall semester included tables, a headboard and miscellaneous other items. Wood ranged from fir and alder to an exotic variety from South America.

"I hope to go into architecture design," Sean Goodrick said as he sanded the combination bench and bookshelf he was making for his parents. "I hope I can use the information I learned from this project to further my design career."

He originally thought he would fashion the alder wood into furniture with a router connected to a computer, but he changed his mind and decided to make it by hand.

"I thought it would be a lot better learning experience," Goodrick explained.

John Sauder was incorporating an intricately designed screen from India into a walnut panel he could hang in front of a window or light. "It's more a piece of art than a piece of furniture," said the graduate student who likes the hands-on format of the class. Erin Curtis was combining white ash and padauk (wood that smells like "scratch and sniff chocolate") into an entryway table. A fifth-year architect student who hopes to own a winery one day, she didn't have enough time to build the wine rack she originally wanted.

"I think a lot of students were surprised at how much was involved in building a really custom piece of furniture," Penziner said as he went from student to student in the MSU workshop. "But I think they got a really strong understanding of the qualities of wood and also what's involved in actually working with the materials."

Penziner favors domestic woods for his own work. In his personal studio, he builds furniture that can be used, as well as entered in art exhibitions. He carries that same philosophy over into the classroom, encouraging students to build furniture that has function and artistic value alike. He also wants students to enjoy his class.

"There are grades," he said. "But grades are based on the process more than the final product. ... I really want the course to be fun. That's a big part of it, and pleasure in the invention of things." That's an approach that seems to work for his students.

"It's great," Sauder said about the course.

"After taking this class, I kind of want to build more furniture as a hobby," Curtis added.

Hastings, who hopes to work for a mid-size architecture firm after graduation, said she learned two important things from Penziner.

"Have a little patience and don't be nervous with the machines."

Evelyn Boswell is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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