Furniture students’ work a perfect fit for Toronto YMCA


What is a way of gauging a student’s learning? Exams are one, but the bachelor of Craft and Design (Furniture) program at Sheridan tests students’ learning by putting them to work.

For many years, the program has required a capstone project to be completed by all final-year students. Graduating students collaborate with external partner organizations on redesigns for furniture pieces.

This winter, the Toronto-based architecture firm Hilditch provided the opportunity. The firm won a tender for some pro bono work to be done at the YMCA near Queen and Spadina in Toronto.

Hilditch forwarded the idea to Connie Chisholm, a part-time faculty member at Sheridan, with whom the firm has previously worked. Chisholm suggested the project to Peter Fleming, studio head for the Furniture Design program, and he gave the go-ahead.

The purpose of the project is twofold, says Chisholm: the students get experience working with a client and the youth at the YMCA shelter and drop-in centre get to participate in the decision-making process. The YMCA has opened a new building serving homeless youth in Toronto, and the 16 graduating Sheridan students are designing a lounge, dining room and workspace furniture for the drop-in centre.

“I’m responsible for whenever the students go down to the drop-in centre,” said Chisholm. “Peter handles all the curriculum side of things.

“The basic idea was to engage youth in the design of the furniture,” said Chisholm. “It was a way to give them a decision-making stance in their lives.”

The students met youths at the drop-in centre and discovered their furniture needs. Students created models, got feedback from the youth and made changes accordingly.

“Basically, we wanted to create a collection that would be versatile,” said Neil Botelho, 28, third-year student. “We talked a lot about [the] sort of contrast between private space and collective space and respecting the need of the youth to have private space if they would like it but to also encourage collective activity.”

Brendon Taylor, 28, says the program teaches students to work on their own, which gives them greater creative control. For this project they have to work in a group, “so it’s a learning experience. Keeping everyone informed of what needs to be done has been a challenge.”

The grads had to go beyond designing everyday furniture and had to think imaginatively to design rugged furniture that will withstand harsh treatment. Chisholm says Daniels Corporation, a residential developer, donated $3,000 worth of lumber for the project and Spec Furniture sold medical vinyl to the college at wholesale price. Medical vinyl is resistant to wear and tear and bedbug infestation.

Candace Klimuk, director of youth outreach and intervention, was pleased with the way the Sheridan grads handled themselves even when dealing with the youth.

“We have a lot of addiction and mental health clients. They may be rude, high or say inappropriate things, but the students dealt with it really well.”

Duncan McNeil, 34, says he has learned how to break down any set of given problems and find effective and innovative design solutions for them.

“Just learning how other people do things, trading off tips and tricks, watching how someone else puts together a piece [in] an entirely different manner than you might do it, even given the same parameters and problems. It’s a furniture design course, and I think it is pretty bang on.”

Students are trying to design furniture to encourage shelter users to develop a sense of self and to inspire them to improve their lives.

Allsun Campbell, 27, who is working with the group designing workstation furniture, says it was important to create furniture that provided a balance between the personal and collective space. She hopes the youth will not just use the space to hang around and relax but be inspired and seek out work and use the new space to start afresh.

Her colleague Katrina Ennamorato, 26, says the grads hope to have the designs completed by April 17.

“All of our designs were approved in February and now we’re moving forward and fabricating them.”