Cal Poly Architecture major Adam Harris’ wooden lamp appears unassuming at first—a curious achievement given that it resembles a chic lightsaber that’s 6 feet tall when fully assembled.
“It was an incredible atmosphere. I personally haven’t seen anything like it. We were all coming out of COVID, so we were very socially deprived. Just the buzz and the rush that you get looking at everyone standing by their piece,” he said. “No one was overly proud but they were happy and relieved. They were embracing the creative atmosphere that everyone was bathing in.”
Hosted every fall by the College of Architecture and Environmental Design and the San Luis Obispo firm Vellum Design Build, the competition has been a Cal Poly crowd-puller since its 2004 debut. While students get to flex their woodworking and design skills, and showcase some of their more outlandish ideas, the winner gets to visit Milan, Italy, for the Salone del Mobile and Design Week—the largest furniture fair in the world.
In 2021, Harris got the chance to do so as the winner. Now the school is gearing up to host the 2022 contest in November.
Then a third-year student, Harris told New Times that it was unusual for students like him to participate in the furniture competition. Fourth- or fifth-year students were typical participants and went home with the rewards.
Harris and some of the other third years were instructed to make lamps for a class assignment, which their professor also encouraged to be Vellum submissions. Harris’ expectations were low when it came to the competition.
“Usually when it comes to these design programs, you come up with a design, workshop it, and you bring it to your professor and they’ll say if they like it,” he said with a laugh. “For this, the majority of my peers got the OK from my professor on or about the first or third attempt. For me and one other student, it took about seven attempts.”
But his persistence paid off. A project visit to Palm Springs brought Harris up close to an oddly shaped mailbox, and inspiration hit. The result was his futuristic lamp called Wish.
The lamp is two tall bands of red oak intercrossed and pinned at the center with knobs that control the light setting. One of the two wooden poles is Y-shaped at the base. Harris said the initial iteration of the design saw the other pole cross into that Y-opening.
“Originally, the idea was that they [the legs] were going to cross … more like a chicken foot. So we kept calling it a chicken wishbone. Then it sure didn’t look like a wishbone anymore, but I thought the name was funny, so I kept it,” he said.
Over 2 1/2 weeks, Harris constructed Wish using a single piece of wood and molded it using a method called steam bending. The red oak was put under high pressure, heat, and moisture that eventually broke down the lignin polymer that binds wood fibers together. Essentially, the steam melts the wood superficially and allows reforming. Wish is one of a kind and now lives in Harris’ family living room in Los Angeles County’s Sierra Madre.
Harris remembers the electrifying atmosphere at last year’s Vellum competition in the Architecture Building. It was packed with competitors, their furniture, and well-wishers, but Harris wasn’t around for the ending.
“I actually wasn’t there to accept the award because I didn’t think I’d win anything! The new Marvel movie had just come out and my friends and I were gonna see it,” he said. “In the middle of the movie, my phone was buzzing and I see it’s my friend, and they say I’ve won. I’m on the floor shaking. They actually left the competition, picked me up from the movies, and drove me all the way back.”
Friendships like those played a big role in his victory, Harris said. He credited his friends and peers in his program for feedback and guidance at all hours of the day, as the group would spend long hours constructing their ideas for the competition.
Like most good friendships, their humor kept Harris humble after his Vellum win. Wish still had to be graded for his final class assignment. The grade doled out by Lecturer Brent Freeby to the winner? An A-minus.
“My friends tease me for it. I thought it was kinda cheeky. But he’s an amazing professor, I can’t think of him in better regards. Coming out of COVID, all of us were very shy, nervous, and uncertain about things. He broke down all those barriers and made us all feel comfortable,” he said.
For new competitors in this year’s furniture building competition, Harris’ advice is almost Socratic.
“I don’t really know anything. Don’t let your lack of experience stop you from loving something. I don’t have any sort of intuition,” he said. “I just love the process, and I loved doing this. If you don’t love it anymore, keep changing it. Trust the process.” Δ
Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].
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