Bernhardt And Aruliden Enlist Eighth-Graders To Design Ideal Schoolroom

Beating out graduate-school contenders at this year’s ICFF, the School at Columbia receives an honor and teaches us all something in the process.

Which school nabbed a top prize at this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair? No, not RISD or Pratt but rather the School at Columbia and its team of eighth-graders, who took it upon themselves to reinvent their classroom — a space that has evolved little since the dawn of the Industrial Age.


The resulting products are nothing short of inspiring.

As part of the Tools at Schools program, the creative consultancy Aruliden guided the class through every step of the design process — from research to mood boards and 3-D modeling to production, which is where Bernhardt, the North Carolina?based furniture company, came in. “We even flew the kids down to the factory in North Carolina, so they could see the manufacturing aspect of it,” Johan Liden, of Aruliden, says. That was really key for us, to go full circle.? The company’s president, Jerry Helling, has shown his commitment to fostering American talent through his seven-year collaboration with the Art Center in Pasadena and was eager to do the same with a younger set of students.

The resulting table, chair, and lockers — which made their debuts ICFF — are nothing short of inspiring: well-made pieces that display not only a fine attention to function but the flourishes that make designs pop. The lockers, for example, feature a doorknob (inspired by one student describing her locker as her bedroom for the semester) and a wealth of storage, including seven shelves and a tilt-out bin. A clever addition is the name tag that doubles as a mail slot “- which won raves among the students. ?There’s not a blackboard in the entire school — it’s all touch screens and smartboards — so when they saw something that was a little more tangible, that you can actually write a note, it was more exciting to them than something digital,” Liden says.

“More than anything, this is a call to action.”

Although Bernhardt wouldn’t disclose the size of its investment, Helling says that it was a “big, big one.” The company has no intention of mass-producing and selling the pieces and is looking for an outside manufacturer. But up until now, the only nibbles have been from potential buyers. ‘People want to buy it, so many people, and they won’t stop asking,’ Helling says. “First we have to find somebody to make it.? The licensing fees would go to promoting design education in school curricula. “The idea of learning how something’s actually made is something that most kids don’t get,” he says. “Nobody has any idea. Things just appear on the Internet and you order it and it’s here.”

Liden thinks the collection can be produced affordably, though perhaps not with all the bells and whistles. “But that’s the next step,” he says. “More than anything, this is a call to action. Anyone can do this in their backyard.”

Be sure to click through the digital slideshow for close-ups of the final products. For a more detailed description of the design process, read Linda Tischler’s fine article on


About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.