Student-designed bench a ‘wave’ to welcome the Mills College community

Mills students Leah Marcus and Dalia Bender seesaw on the Wooden Wave installation at Mills College in Oakland, California. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

It’s a universal sign of friendship: That quick pat-pat on the seat of a bench that says, “Come sit with me, let’s pause to enjoy each other’s company.” So, to celebrate their historic merging, Northeastern University is gifting Mills College with a handmade bench in the long-distance version of that familiar pat-pat.

But it’s not just any bench; it’s one designed by architecture students at Northeastern featuring a playful, functional see-saw, and found in several locations on the university’s Boston campus, as well.

“As young designers, it’s the dream to take your school project, something you’re passionate about, and to take it beyond class,” said Mark Lewis, a fifth-year architecture student who worked on the Wooden Wave bench with three of his classmates.

The bench is made from nearly 60 individual, vertical pieces of wood all joined by a deceptively simple horizontal dowel system visible within the piece. One can be found near the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Northeastern’s Boston campus. And another was installed on the Oakland, California, campus of Mills College, between the Mills Student Union and the Moore Natural Sciences Building.

Lewis and his peers—Alexandria Batiste, Adrian Ramon, and Adele Biehl—originally designed the bench for an architecture studio course, Furniture Urbanism, in which students were tasked with designing pieces of furniture that could be added to outdoor space to foster a sense of community.

Northeastern students Malika Steen and Tess Spitzer Caldwell and Mills employee Letty Rojas enjoy The Wooden Wave installation at Mills College in Oakland, California. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Their playful bench captured the imagination of students, faculty, and staff on Northeastern’s Boston campus, including that of Joseph E. Aoun, president of the university, who so appreciated the design he thought to send one to the newest members of the Northeastern community in Oakland, California.

Northeastern and Mills College finalized a historic merger last year, a bicoastal partnership that will establish Mills College at Northeastern University and will bring Mills College and its distinctive mission focused on access, equity, social justice, and women’s leadership into Northeastern’s global network.

There was just one problem: The bench built by the students for their final project was made of poplar lumber and plywood that wasn’t designed to withstand the elements for much longer than a few months.  

So, the university commissioned five more benches from the architecture students: four to be installed as permanent fixtures on the Boston campus, and one to be given to Mills College as a symbol of the partnership between the two institutions.

“That was such a confirmation for us that we’d approached our work the right way and that people outside of the architecture circle were excited about it,” said Ramon, also a fifth-year student. “It was really exciting.”

But it also meant the students had a short window of time to submit new schematics to Northeastern’s carpentry shop.

In doing so, the students had a rare opportunity in architectural design: The chance to learn from and improve upon their original fabrication.

The Wooden Wave seesaw installation at Mills College in Oakland, California. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

“People had been using the bench quite actively,” said Peter Wiederspahn, associate professor of architecture who ran the Furniture Urbanism course along with Patrick Kana, manager of the makerspace in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“The students made some initial assumptions about the strength of the materials, and have since found certain stress points in the original design that were deflecting and needed strengthening,” Wiederspahn said.

Kana added, “It’s a scenario that so few designers and architects get.”

The new benches are made from a type of imported tropical hardwood plywood that includes Brazilian hardwood, with mahogany pieces for the see-saw. The marine-grade lumber, coupled with a high-quality clear varnish, will ensure the furniture withstands the varying seasonal climates on both U.S. coasts.

It’s not just the benches that are long-lasting; the students said the lessons they’ve learned throughout the design experience will continue to inform their practice, even beyond graduation.

“For me, it’s been a really insightful process,” said Batiste, a fifth-year student, who added that the experience made her consider furniture architecture in the future.

Biehl, a fourth-year student, said, “So often we’ll design things that never go anywhere outside of our computers. This was an opportunity to take those designs out into the real world—produce it and reproduce it, see how it falls apart and how we can build it better.”

It’s also a project that will live on at both campuses, Kana said, a legacy for the four students who designed it.

“Having a tangible object placed on campus on the West Coast and here [in Boston], for people to actually use means that this will have a long-lasting wave of impact on their professional lives for years to come. This could really be a launching pad for their careers.”

Not to mention, a comfortable place to sit with new and old friends.  

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