Furniture maker is sitting pretty

Chairs: A Columbia native will be the only American in an international design contest in China.

October 21, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

The last thing that comes to mind when you see Chantal Loomis' pair of "Butterfly" chairs is, "Gee, I'd like to plop down in one of those."

The purple Lycra, spandex and steel creations -- made during a two-week period this year while Loomis was in design school -- don't look like chairs.

At first glance, they are merely pieces of abstract sculpture that would be more at home in a Soho art gallery than a suburban living room or den.

Loomis' avant-garde yet functional chairs, each weighing 41 pounds, are being shipped to Beijing, where they will be part of the international Chic Chinois Design Award competition.

Loomis, a 23-year-old Columbia native, was the only American selected as a finalist in the furniture category of the annual contest, which is co-sponsored by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and Felissimo Corp.

She and her mother, Arlette, will fly to Beijing next month to hear the announcement of the grand-prize winner and meet furniture designers from around the world.

It's heady stuff for the shy, soft-spoken Loomis, who graduated in June from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the country's most influential and competitive art schools. Even with a design degree under her belt, the world of international competition feels foreign and remote.

"I'm amazed," Loomis says with a small, incredulous laugh. "I've never entered such a huge competition, much less won anything. I'm thrilled. I don't know, some days I think about it, and I can't believe it."

Each of the 30 finalists in the furniture category received $1,000 toward production and shipping of their designs. The grand-prize winner of the competition in four categories (furniture, fashion, accessories and housewares/home accessories) will be awarded $10,000 and will have his or her design mass-produced.

Loomis designed the chairs as part of her senior project at RISD after studying theater-set design. She decided to create a pair of chairs after reading the Tony Award-winning "M. Butterfly," the 1988 Broadway hit that was based on actual events and examined a French diplomat's devotion to a Chinese man masquerading as a woman.

The play was an immediate source of inspiration for Loomis.

"As soon as I read the play, I had to design something that I thought would fit in the play," she says. "The chairs symbolize the two main characters in the play. There's a lot of deception and love and lies in the story line. I wanted to focus on trying to build an illusion."

Designed to look like butterfly wings, they hardly look like chairs. The foam cushion is hidden inside the colorful fabric stretched over the steel rods, which have been shaped to resemble the curvaceous lines of a woman's body.

Merely sitting in one of the chairs transforms it.

But Loomis wanted the chairs to invoke another theme: metamorphosis.

Appropriate host

It seems appropriate that China, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of communist rule this year, is serving as host of this year's UNESCO competition.

"China itself has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis within the last 50 years and is still changing," says Chantal's father, Larry Loomis, president of New Horizons Diagnostics Inc., a Columbia company that produces medical diagnostic equipment. "It seems like the right time for this competition to be there."

But making the chairs was a bit of an experiment. Having never made a piece of furniture, Chantal set about creating her chairs from scratch.

The biggest puzzle, Loomis says, was trying to find out how to cut the fabric to fit the steel rods and the foam seat. She had never worked with steel or learned to sew.

"You don't actually learn how to build things at RISD," Loomis says. "They show you how to weld and how to build a lamp, that kind of thing. But it's up to you to do what you want with certain tools" to build furniture or architectural models. A professor helped Loomis shape the steel at a campus crafts shop.

That Loomis is an artist and designer is a bit of a surprise. As a student at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, she steered away from art class. Though she recognized her talent for drawing and painting early, Loomis says, she "tried to do things that I wasn't too good at just to try new things. I got bored in art class, and I didn't think I'd go to design school."

`Pure design'

She decided to major in furniture design, though the thought of designing sleigh beds, chests of drawers and coffee tables for suburban family rooms holds little appeal for her.

"I don't want to build residential furniture," Loomis says. "I'd like to so something in pure design -- basically doing the same thing that they taught me to do in school."

Whatever happens, Loomis says, she will do one thing differently next time.

"I'd definitely try to find a way to make the fabric removable, so that people could throw it in the washing machine," she says.

Pub Date: 10/21/99

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