Design Alumni Make Major Impact on West Michigan Furniture Industry

Posted May 28, 2021 in Alumni

Outstanding creative work by former and current students of KCAD's Furniture Design, Industrial Design, Collaborative Design, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Digital Art and Design, and Sculpture and Functional Art programs were presented as part of Grand Rapids Public Museum's (GRPM) 2021 Collections & Cocktails fundraiser last month.  

Thevent focused on GRPM's extensive Furniture Collection, showcasing how Grand Rapids transformed the furniture industry and influenced the evolution of furniture design as a discipline. The Museum partnered with 11 local furniture entities, including KCAD Furniture Design students, to present iconic artifacts and curated furniture displays for guests to view after hoursThe 2021 virtual program and Furniture Collection gallery are available to explore anytime at grpmcollections.org.  

Of the exhibiting furniture companies—Belwith Keeler, BOLD Furniture, Custer, Inc., Grand Rapids Chair Co., Haworth, Herman Miller, Irwin Seating, Kindel Grand Rapids, Landscape Forms, and Steelcase—more than 50 alumni are now playing active roles in the design, product development, and marketing of their iconic and innovative furniture.  

“There is no denying the contributions of KCAD alumni to the design economy of our region,” said KCAD President Tara McCrackin. The college has graduated thousands of designers who profoundly influence the commercial and residential furnishings market daily, a global industry with a forecasted growth exceeding $750 billion by 2026. From millworkers, woodworkers, and upholsterers to salespeople and interior designers, furniture design employs thousands of people, creating a substantial economic impact for the region.  

KCAD enjoys a synergetic relationship with the region's furniture makers, and many graduates of programs such as Furniture Design, Industrial Design, Collaborative Design, and Interior Design move on to jobs in the furniture world post-graduation.  

This year, Furniture Design, Industrial Design, and Metals and Jewelry Design—three KCAD programs with a shared history of leading graduates to professional success—have merged into Product Design, a forward-thinking BFA program. In the Furniture Design concentration, students build on the field's rich history by learning how to blend form and function to create objects that unlock new possibilities for how people can interact with the spaces in which they live and work.  

A photo of three students discussing a chair on display.

Furniture Design Program: (L to R) Gavin McGuire ('21) , Joe Parr (instructor), Adam Podboy ('21). 

"Designers that come out of Kendall influence the industry in their unique ways, whether they're designing home furnishings or corporate office systems," said Gayle DeBruyn, KCAD Professor and Collaborative Design Program Chair. "And it takes more than furniture designers to make, distribute, and sell furniture. Our alumni who aren't designing the furniture are working on graphic design, interior design, digital design, project management, and leading the teams behind it all," explained DeBruyn. 

It's no secret that West Michigan has influenced the furniture world. Making furniture has been a part of the culture since 1837, when Grand Rapids' first furniture maker William Haldane set up shop. The city built a reputation as the 'Furniture City' while creating some of the world's largest residential furniture factories and hosting the mid-season furniture markets from 1878-1965. The industry focus has since shifted to the design and manufacturing of commercial furniture, but the city's legacy of furniture-making continues to this day.   

Photo of a person with dark hair and glasses standing in front of a display with scale model furniture.

Located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, the history of KCAD is interwoven with the region's rich legacy of innovative furniture design and manufacturing. In 1928, Helen Miller Kendall, accomplished artist, philanthropist, and wife of furniture design legend David Wolcott Kendall, established the David Wolcott Kendall Memorial School as a way to continue her husband’s legacy of creativity, education, and innovation.  

GRPM’Furniture Collection includes rare pieces by iconic designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, and KCAD's namesake, David W. Kendall. The Museum presented two pieces designed by Kendall and manufactured by Phoenix Furniture Company—the McKinley Armchair (c.1895-1910), purchased and used by President William McKinley, and an oak bookcase (1900). 

A photo of a wooden armchair designed by David Wolcott Kendall.

"Being surrounded by the city's rich history of furniture and having access to Kendall's furniture design collection throughout my studies was essential to shaping my outlook on the industry," said Eric Schroeder ('17, Furniture Design), a Product Designer at BOLD Furniture in Muskegon.  

Photo of an antique oak bookcase.

Oak bookcase designed by David W. Kendall and manfuctured by Phoenix Furniture Company.

"I used my opportunities as a student to tour archives at the library, the public museum, and various local companies, all of which have impacted my thought processes moving forward," explained Schroeder.  

His work Ready///Able, included in BOLD's display, will now be accessioned into the Museum's permanent collection. He first designed the modular storage and seating system as his senior thesis project when the team at BOLD, where Schroeder was a design intern, decided to produce some items from the collection. Now, Schroeder designs custom products for the company full-time.  

A photo of modular furniture pieces on display.

Eric Schroeder's "Ready///Able" bench storage solution on display with BOLD Furniture.

Globally-acclaimed designer and Industrial Design alum ('00) Joey Ruiter has also designed furniture for BOLD, including the sit-to-stand double pedestal desk for the BOLD One Collection. The signature piece, also included in BOLD's display, won the company's first NeoCon award in 2014 (Gold for Tables: Training and Work).  

Ruiter has designed work for other major furniture players, including Allsteel, Grand Rapids Chair, Herman Miller, Nucraft, and Steelcase. 

Belwith Keeler, another Grand Rapids legacy, specializes in cabinet hardware design, incorporating its historical process of hand modeling and precise sketching alongside newer techniques using cutting-edge technology for digital modeling and 3D scanning. The company also retains several talented KCAD grads, including Kendra Czuhajewski ('18, Furniture Design), who now works as a Product Designer.  

"Kendall's furniture program prepared me to be innovative with designs and materials, but it also gave me a strong background in traditional styles and history, allowing me to create unique pieces that still fit into the design styles of today," said Czuhajewski. The designer also minored in Metals and Jewelry Design while at KCAD.  

One of those unique pieces Czuhajewski refers to is Belwith Keeler's Firenze hardware, part of a two-door chest showcased with Kindel Furniture Company. Czuhajewski and Product Development Director Lisa Koskela collaboratively designed the Firenze collection. Koskela ('06, Furniture Design) and Design Model Maker Taylor Olson ('12, Sculpture and Functional Art) are fellow alumni now working at Belwith Keeler.   

A photo of a person with blonde hair demonstrating wood sculpting.

Alumna Taylor Olson ('12) demonstrating the process of hand sculpting hardware at Belwith Keeler's display.

Distinguished alumnus Denis Granda ('91, Furniture Design) is the Director of Design and Product Development at Kindel Furniture Company. Kindel is one of the only Grand Rapids Furniture companies founded in the 19th century that is still in business, and it continues to create extremely high-quality furniture.  

A photo of a two door chest with gold detailing.

Belwith Keeler's Firenze hardware, part of a two-door chest showcased with Kindel Furniture Company's Facets Collection. 

"I hit the ground running in my first job due to the quality of my design education," said Granda, who is now an adjunct instructor for the college's Product Design program.  

Granda's work includes detailed historic reproductions like the Holden chair, an adaptation of an antique from the Winterthur Museum designed in collaboration with fellow alum Erin Habib ('13, Furniture Design). He also designed the company's successful Facets Collection, a configurable design concept including several case sizes, hardware designs, doors, and bases that customers can choose from to create their design.  

A photo of a Kindel chair with a black base and gold detail.

Chief Creative Officer Kirt Martin graduated from KCAD's Industrial Design program in 1997 and now leads the design, marketing, and product development for Landscape Forms, an outdoor site furnishings company headquartered in Kalamazoo. "Kendall was transformational in my life and career," said Martin, who works to help people understand the value of outdoor space and its effects on the human experience.  

After spending years sitting as head of product design for leading furniture manufacturers, alumnus Mitch Bakker ('84, Furniture Design) founded the industrial design and research firm IDa Design. The Zeeland-based firm donated its Vicinity chair, designed for Allsteel, to the Museum's permanent furniture collection. 

A photo of a black change with a leather seat and thin angular legs.

Vicinity Chair for Allsteel, designed and donated to the Museum's Collection by IDa Design.

Since the beginning, Bakker has hired several fellow KCAD alums to work at IDa, including Principal/Design Lead Zach Raven ('07, Industrial Design), Senior Industrial Designer Austin Arthur ('13, Industrial Design), and Trend Content Strategist Grace Rodgers ('16, Industrial Design).  

As part of the exhibit, current Furniture Design students Jake Hanson, Boya Zhang, Gavin McGuire, Neal Jeltema, Katie Morrison, TianLiao (Stephan) Zhong, and Kate Human, along with recent grads Joe Dunaske (‘20) and Adam Podboy (‘21), were invited to display their work at the Museum. 

The students’ exhibitThe Future of Work at Homeuses scale models to demonstrate concepts from their advanced courses in design development and senior capstone projects studying user needs and designing furniture for the ever-evolving home office.  

A close-up photo of scale model furniture on display.

KCAD students' display, The Future of Work at Home, featuring scale models of furniture.

Furniture Design student Jake Hanson said the furniture market will continue to evolve, “influenced by advancing manufacturing methods and materials, adaptable technology interfaces, and customer demands for more sustainable solutions. 

Prospective students and parents interested in KCAD's Product Design program and Furniture Design concentration are encouraged to register for a guided, in-depth tour of campus to learn more. Check for upcoming tour dates available this summer at kcad.ferris.edu/life/visiting. 

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