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The Art of Healing

CAA Student Fuses Beauty and Function to Create Award-Winning Chair

While visiting her aunt in a hospital room as a 15-year old, Ainsley Bauer ’23 didn’t immediately think she would someday study interior architecture. But what she saw got her thinking about how she could make things better.

She realized the sterile, generic surroundings in her aunt’s hospital room were not conducive to recovery for the mind or body. Remembering that scene helped her become an award-winning furniture designer.

“I knew it was not a good environment for recovery,” said Bauer, who graduated earlier this year in Interior Architecture & Design (IAD) before enrolling in U of I’s Master's in Architecture program. “There is a psychology to healing. If you feel safe and comfortable, you’re going to heal faster.”

The Spokane native brought her dream of designing furniture for medical facilities to U of I, and specifically to IAD 332, the College of Art and Architecture’s Furniture Design and Construction class, which offers the unique opportunity to both design and build furniture.

“This class exposes students to every step of the creative process – from concept design to model making to building their own full-size furniture,” said Miranda Anderson, director of the IAD program.

Woman sitting in chair.
Ainsley Bauer.

Sabi Sling Chair

For her class project, Bauer wanted to create something that was the opposite of today’s disposable, big box store furniture – a chair that showcased the beauty of natural building materials and was as emotionally appealing as it was functional.

Being involved in this program has opened my eyes to how much fun it is to design and construct furniture. I started thinking about interior architecture and design when I was in high school and now I know I can make a career out of it.Ainsley Bauer, ’23

Her Sabi Sling Chair – Sabi is Japanese for “things whose beauty stems from age” – was built with a solid Baltic Birch frame and leather sling, which were connected with maple dowels pushed through leather loops. The leather work was very challenging, but Bauer’s persistence paid off.

“Working with leather is not easy and Ainsley knew that,” said Hani El Hajj, one of the class instructors. “Her leather loops became a very unique and avant-garde detail for her chair and made her chair stand out.”

After three weeks of construction and an estimated 200 hours in the wood shop – “You better be able to produce what you design,” Ainsley laughed – the chair came to life. She created a chair that helps people feel good.

“It’s a chair that hugs you – you feel safe in it,” she said.

Closeup of three leather loops on a chair.
Leather loops on Bauer’s Sabi Sling Chair.

Show Time

Bauer displayed her chair at the Chair Affair, a regional furniture design showcase in Boise, in April 2022. The Sabi Sling Chair received many accolades, especially about the leather joinery technology, and Bauer walked away with the award for Best Design.

Based on her performance in Boise, both El Hajj and David Schmidt, the U of I tech shop director at the time, encouraged her to enter a national competition – the Association of Woodworking & Furnishing Suppliers Expo in Las Vegas last July, where she won first place for Design for Production.

“U of I has had a long tradition in competing in this competition, but it’s been several years since we’ve had a first-place finish,” said CAA Dean Shauna Corry. “The CAA family is incredibly proud of Ainsley, Hani and David.”

Bauer’s results were even more impressive considering this was the first time she designed and constructed a chair, used a computer numerical control machine to shape materials and used leather material in a design.

Bauer came to U of I in Fall 2020 after researching colleges online. Interested in interior design but not knowing much about it, she came across CAA’s webpage and discovered the IAD program. After reading about the faculty members and their experience in the field, she was sold.

“Being involved in this program has opened my eyes to how much fun it is to design and construct furniture,” she said. “I started thinking about interior architecture and design when I was in high school and now I know I can make a career out of it.”

Two men and one woman posing next to table and chair.
Hani El Hajj, David Schmidt and Ainsley Bauer at Chair Affair.

Article by David Jackson, University Communications and Marketing.

Photos courtesy of Ainsley Bauer. 

Published in November, 2023.

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