When you see 6-foot-6 chair designer August Johnson draped over one of his contemporary steel rod and wood ball creations, it's hard not to picture the Lincoln Memorial.
"A lot of times, I'll sit in them and think, 'this one's perfect.' And then someone normal-sized will sit in them and say, "this is sweet, but my feet don't touch the ground,'" laughed Johnson.
A commercial real estate appraiser who studied finance at Boise State, Johnson doesn't have the pedigree of a typical furniture designer. In fact, he didn't even begin creating chairs until 2003, when he found out about Interior Designers of Idaho's annual Chair Affair.
"After a bunch of people started telling me about the competition, I thought, 'Well, I guess I'll build a chair,'" Johnson said. "It seems awfully boring, when you just think of your typical chair. You think, 'this isn't that exciting.'"
But, oh, was he wrong. Using a metal disk from an old farm tractor as a base, Johnson welded together dozens of quarter-inch iron rods to form a seat and a back, then topped off the rods with small, dyed and polyurethane-dipped wooden balls. When the Chair Affair crowd marveled at his complex, bed-of-nails Ballistic Chair, it seemed more high art than functional.
"They had my chair up on this little pedestal thing and nobody could sit in it. I was like, 'The whole deal is you've got to sit in the chair to get it,'" said Johnson. "So, we took it down and eventually there was a line to sit in it."
The Chair Affair competition was started by Interior Designers of Idaho, a collection of almost 100 local designers who help promote professionalism and high standards in interior design. Now in its 18th year, the annual event challenges design students and professionals across the Northwest to create innovative furniture--not just chairs--and awards prizes in seven categories: best professional design, best student design, best recycled materials design, best craftsmanship, best functional design, most creative design and people's choice award.
"Originally, chairs were picked just because it's an easy furniture piece to move around," explained Sarah Baker, president of IDI. "But, we actually accept all furniture pieces--we often get a lot of tables. Last year, we had a credenza, wine racks, lights ... benches, sofas. Chair Affair was chosen because it rhymes."
In addition to the gala at the Visual Arts Collective on Saturday, April 24, this year's event will also include a trade show and a lecture series on Friday, April 23, at the Grove Hotel. Lecture topics include "Cognitive Ergonomics" by Kent Reyling, director of market education at Kimball Office, and "The Future of Color" by Chair Affair head juror Stacy Garcia.
And it's not only design professionals who have a seat at the Chair Affair table. In years past, everyone from an emergency room nurse to a plumber who fashioned a throne out of copper pipe have entered their creations into the competition.
"We've had enormous pieces--we had this Paul Bunyan chair a few years ago that was a big log chair. Another woman made a fairy chair. She went out into the woods and selected bits of twigs and acorns and bark and built a chair for a fairy," said IDI member Salle Robinson. "Anything and everything you can think of, we get."
The competition also provides a foot in the door for Northwest design students. Two-thirds of all applicants come from programs at the University of Idaho, Brigham Young University-Idaho, University of Washington and Boise State. This year, money raised at the Chair Affair--through entry fees and a raffle for an Eames chair--will fund two scholarships at U of I and two at BYU-Idaho.
"It is a great networking opportunity, especially since we have so many students that enter ... I know of designers that have spoken to students and, in turn, down the road, given them internships or they've gotten jobs because of that relationship," said Robinson.
But even if you don't have access to soldering irons and table saws, you can still participate in the Chair Affair by entering the Re:Use Cup Challenge, in which participants craft a mini rump stump out of an old coffee cup.
"It's our fourth year, this year, that we will be doing our cup challenge. People can take a coffee cup and paper sleeve, a stir stick and the lid and make a little chair," said Baker. "It's kind of for those who don't have the materials to make a larger chair. They can still be involved ... it's all made from basically recycled materials. We wanted something that was readily available to everybody. No matter what area you are in, you'll find a coffee cup."
Whether it's fairy chairs made from sticks and leaves, Barbie chairs crafted from old coffee cups or stately contemporary art chairs fashioned from steel and wood, the Chair Affair continues to push local designers to re-conceptualize a functional object that frequently goes unnoticed. For designers like Johnson, who won the People's Choice Award twice and the Most Creative Design Award once, the Chair Affair has encouraged him to continue exploring the chair form as his primary creative outlet.
"Really [the Chair Affair] was the whole reason this line was created. Without the design competition to stimulate me to build something, who knows if it would've ever come about," said Johnson.
Guest lectures: Friday, April 23, 9:30 a.m.-1:15 p.m.; $25 online, $30 door, $20 students; Grove Hotel, 245 S. Capitol Blvd.
Gala: Saturday, April 24, 7-11 p.m.; $20 online, $25 door, $15 students; Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage St., Garden City, interiordesignersofidaho.org.