When a group of Washington State University students was tasked five years ago with designing a ‘bench of belonging,’ they soon determined that benches really don’t create a sense of inclusiveness.
“Most of the time when you feel encouraged to talk to someone, it doesn’t happen at a bench, it happens at a table, so that’s how we started the process,” said Shannon Spilker, who graduated in 2020 with degrees in accounting and communications.
The design for the students’ inclusive Splatt Table has recently taken the top student prize for an office table design in the international SIT furniture design competition. The competition recognizes innovations from furniture designers, interior designers, brands, manufacturers, and emerging talents.
The Splatt project started in November 2017 as part of the Creative Corridor program, which aims to bring students together with faculty and staff to tackle unconventional creative activities that are not tied to curriculum. They began meeting weekly to design for inclusivity and eventually produced a series of table prototypes, including one that is used on the second floor of WSU’s Spark building.
Their unique table features a radial arrangement of petals and pockets that creates a collaborative environment and facilitates group work on many scales.
As for the name, “the table really looks like a splat,” said Sarah Rosenthal, who has worked on the project since the beginning while she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in interior design.
“I think I just blurted the name out one day,” she said. “It is a splat. It just made sense. The name evolved naturally from the form.”
People who saw the prototypes loved the design, said Bob Krikac, associate professor in the School of Design and Construction, who has worked with the students on the project.
“We realized we really had a marketable product, and the students just took off with it from there.”
Over the past five years as they met weekly, the team gathered feedback from focus groups, made presentations on their work, and applied for a patent. In 2020, they received a grant from the WSU Commercialization Gap Fund that has allowed them to continue the work, including traveling to professional trade shows and meeting with furniture manufacturers. They also enter design competitions to expand the visibility of their work.
As for the SIT Furniture Design Award, “I had kept my hopes lower than dirt,” admits Rosenthal.
“We are applying to all these big, fancy competitions with international office systems furniture providers and designers who have actual money and studios and technology and milling machines, and I just thought ‘we are small fry and that’s cool,’” she said. “We’re just going to dip our toe in, and it will be good practice.
“I never ever expected that we would actually win but here we are. And it’s a big win because this is an international competition. There are submissions from Dubai and Qatar and China. It’s just incredible — this is not small fish.”
The team is currently speaking with regional manufacturers about putting the product into their furniture collections and is seeking a third party to collaborate on commercial production. They plan to enter more design competitions as well.
While they never expected to win the competition, the project has nevertheless been an invaluable learning experience – from learning how to use design programs and fabrication tools to gaining professional soft skills that are needed for success in the workplace.
“This has taught me everything about what is required of me to be a good designer and also what is required to be a good professional outside of design,” said Rosenthal. “It has taught me about dependability and project management, fundraising, how to present myself at a design convention, how to make a budget for traveling and how to build relationships with industry partners, how to work on a team and to balance interpersonal relationships. It’s just chock full of good skills.”
In other projects, she might have gotten some of those skills, but the Splatt project requires that she exercises those skills together.
“The Splatt table is actually real, and it’s a conglomeration of all the skills that I need to be a successful human being,” she said.
Besides Rosenthal and Spilker, Kris Kha (BS, animal sciences) also worked on the project, and the team received support from Lisa Johnson-Shull, director of the WSU’s Writing Center, and Jon Manwaring, assistant director for learning innovations, and Chris Lavoie, a graphic designer with the Office of Academic Outreach and Innovation.
Check out a YouTube video about the Splatt Table: