What if furniture also evoked a memory of an experience, like a story or a song can? This is the question posed by furniture designer Robert Adams when completing his thesis for his Master of Fine Arts in Furniture Design degree at Savannah College of Art and Design. We spoke with him about how old storytelling informed and inspired his Edna Collection dining group.

Question: What did you hope to achieve through your research and design processes for your thesis? 

Answer: I wanted to connect culture, craft, and current technology in a relevant and innovative way. We interact with our environment through our senses. What we see, hear, and sense through skin and kinesthetic movement defines our perception of the world surrounding us. Using furniture involves primarily a visual and tactile experience because we see its shape, color and form, and then we feel what it is like to physically interact with it. Our interactions of sight and touch with furniture are almost subconscious. Thinking about the image and feel of furniture, I started to wonder, “What if furniture also evoked a memory of an experience, like a story or a song can?”

Storytelling and craftsmanship are both uniquely human activities, and I began to explore how they might interact to exalt our uniqueness as human beings. People ascribe value to furniture, such as heirlooms, when there is an associated memory or story attached to the object. I set out to understand this connection humans have with their created objects, but at the most basic level, I wanted to tell stories through the furniture I design.

Question:  How did you choose the topic for your research?

Answer:  When I began, I had just finished a contemporary art class. I wanted to explore furniture as art for my class paper, but the professor insisted I write about traditional fine arts, like painting and sculpture. Sculpture is the closest fine art to furniture, so I examined how modern sculptors tell stories through dimensional imagery and how we psychologically perceive that communication from the artist. Artists connect us to objects of art through a shared experience, and that common experience often involves a story.

This helped me consider how people interact with objects and artifacts they use in daily life, and how these items might do more than simply offer utilitarian function and visual aesthetics. While fine art primarily serves an aesthetic function, furniture must also be functional. I wondered, “What if furniture motivated us to explore our heritage and learn from allegorical lessons of the past? Could furniture transcend its customary utilitarian and decorative aesthetic roles to help tell stories as well?”

This question became the basis for my studies of Norse mythology, of Viking craft, and of the psychology of artifacts, and from there the thesis took on a life of its own. I studied The Eddas for tales of the Norse gods, and then explored Viking culture, examined Viking art, and reviewed Norse woodworking in my search for creating allegorical furniture. Additionally, I discovered how decoration has been used in the past to relate stories through furniture, so I decided to tell epic Norse sagas through my designs.

Question:  From your research, what led you to the final design for your furniture collection?

Answer:  I wanted to connect old storytelling tradition and culture with modern technological designing and furniture fabrication. My stories came from Neil Gaiman’s version of The Eddas entitled “Norse Mythology,” which I found to be the most approachable and entertaining modern retelling of the stories of Norse gods. These tales inspired the images for my designs. Inspiration for the CNC inlays came from Jonas Lars Markussen’s book, “The Anatomy of Viking Art.” His patterns and techniques lent themselves well to computer-assisted design, which I used to create the inlaid images.

I selected red elm and white ash as the materials for my project because these were the constituents used to create the first man and woman according to Norse myths. Craftsmen have hand painted and carved furniture for centuries, but I wanted to use technology to achieve my decoration. I used software-generated designs to develop CNC machined patterns that allowed precise fitting of the red elm inlays into the ash. Then a direct-to-substrate printer applied colored low-poly art images. The Scandinavian Modern style incorporates Viking maritime references in the shapes of this furniture collection.

Question:  Explain your choice of executing your design into a dining group?

Answer:  Where do friends and families physically gather today to share their experiences and their stories? They gather around food, as humans have done for millennia! Because eating is both a necessary physical and social event, it made sense to begin a collection of story-telling furniture in the dining room. Many allegorical stories involve food, such as Jesus feeding the five thousand, or Moses finding manna in the desert. Norse sagas offer many tales of food and hospitality, so I selected one popular story for the table and another for the bench. The console cabinet is a device for storing things related to meals, and its selection was about family relationships, not about food specifically. This piece shows that Norse gods, like us mortals, have aspects of the self that they display outwardly, and aspects that they close off and protect, just like locking shut the items hidden away in a cabinet.

Question:  The Bienenstock Furniture Library’s tagline is ‘Touch History…Design the Future’.  Why do you feel it’s important to research history for inspiration of designs for the future?

Answer:  We as humans are the sum of our experiences. Our experiences become our memories because we turn them into meaningful stories. This is true individually, but is also true for whole societies. Santayana told us if we forget the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat their mistakes. Orwell told us the past is an integral part of our future when he said, “…who controls the past controls the future.” The Eddas offered me timeless tales of archetypal human interactions with the world and with society, the selection of my materials, and the inspiration for forms that motivated my design. Studying the history of furniture provided insight into how these objects show social status, highlight technology, and reveal individual personality. Learning about Scandinavian Modern style furniture and the genealogy of that design movement provided the foundation of my forms. By touching each of these inspiring histories, I created The Edda collection.