Meet Jessica Konawicz
By Dave Pond, Web Communication
The chair. Four legs and a back. Take a trip to any shopping center, and you'll see a million of 'em for sale, all of varying sizes, shapes and prices.
But leave it to NC State grad student Jessica Konawicz to see past the ordinary, break the mold and come up with a design that not only looks snazzy, but is environmentally friendly and inexpensive to mass produce.
In fact, the 26-year-old's concept proved so revolutionary that she was named one of two grand-prize winners of One Good Chair, a design competition sponsored by the Sustainable Furniture Council. In July, Konawicz was flown to Las Vegas to collect a cash prize – which will allow her to prototype her design – and participate in a panel discussion with a number of environmentally friendly designers and furniture makers.
"My aim was to design a chair that was unique and beautiful, and could be constructed from a single renewable resource material that is biodegradable," she said. "It's not intended as the sort of lounge chair one would choose as a place to fall asleep – it is instead meant to serve as a chair for actively relaxing, where you could read, listen to music, or talk over coffee with a friend."
Konawicz's design pays homage to the unique, flowing patterns found in the Pandanus tree, a species native to Madagascar with pod-like fruit that seems to wrap around itself as it matures – a feature Konawicz thought essential to replicate in her design, not only for aesthetic beauty but for ease in retail distribution and at-home stackability as well.
"I tried to blend something you'd wanted to live with, with a design that is unique and eye-catching," she said.
All the while, Konawicz's design had to be able to accommodate the stringent environmental requirements fueling her concept, guidelines instilled in her during both her undergraduate and graduate years at NC State.
"In almost every class I've taken, the professors have really tried to make us think about what is going to happen to your product at the end," Konawicz said. "For example, take cell phones – people go through those so quickly. The trick is to design something that is more earth-friendly, even if it's just a little change.
"It's all about the big picture, and looking at your product in the greater scheme of things," she said. "Everyone has a different definition of sustainability, so you take that into account at each level to make the most sustainable product you can."
While searching for a plant-based, biodegradable material that would be durable enough to hold up to daily use, Konawicz came across an Australian company that produces zelfo, a fiberglass/wood-like material made solely of water and plant fibers such as hemp, flax, sugar-cane and waste paper.
"There aren't many furniture products that are made out of it - I've only seen a couple of chairs on their website," she said. "It kind of looks like a plastic, but it has a bit of a different texture to it. They can also make it in any color, which is a plus as well."
Konawicz credits her fellow design students and professors with helping to bring her design to life – she did the majority of her research for the One Good Chair contest during Professor Bong-Il Jin's studio last semester, and hopes to build her prototype in class as this year progresses.
"Everyone in Industrial Design is like family - they'll do anything for you," Konawicz said. "There was total encouragement and support from Professor Bong-Il Jin and [Industrial Design chair] Bryan Laffitte.
"You're working long hours in the studio, side-by-side with fellow students, and everyone is offering ideas and building one another up in their work," she said. "I can definitely say that for me, this is the best part of school."