THE CLASSROOM, published in 2010 by the Wasmuth Publishing House, features a chapter "Connecting Learning and Learning Environments" in which Peter Brown establishes a precedent for intertwining education and design, then illustrates ideas shaping the next generations of school design based on shifts that are occurring within the current educational landscape. The book is available from WASMUTH. This post is number one in a series of seven.
At first review, the VS school museum provides a survey of developments in school furnishings over the last century. Having spent considerable time with the collection, the museum reflects a rich interplay among societal forces at work during the twentieth century. The pieces can be understood at many levels: manufacturing technology, educational philosophy, educational technology, school operations, social ideals, social progress, philosophy of ergonomics, and design philosophy. The museum represents the creative discussions occurring over a period of 100 years between educators, product designers, and architects intertwining their diverse perspectives to create meaningful environments for teaching and learning.
In this light, the museum provides a catalogue of design innovation in response to a wide range of educational processes and ideals. Early practical innovations allowed floors to be cleaned efficiently and the ability to use ink without spilling reservoirs. Bauhaus designers honed relationships between materials and function, creating beautifully minimal responses to furniture for learning. In the furniture of Crow Island School, Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames explored new technologies in bent plywood and created seating scaled to students. Seat profiles for kindergarteners step up in scale as grade levels increase, allowing each member of the school community to be comfortable in furniture – just the right size with feet on the floor.
Intertwining Education and Design
Crow Island School – designed in 1939 by Eliel Saarinen with Perkins, Wheeler and Will as a collaboration between educators and designers – marks a seminal point in the interrelationship between educational design, architectural design, and furniture design. Widely understood as “the first modern school,” the building planning is a direct response to John Dewey’s philosophy of progressive education. A repeating classroom module was developed that allows students and teachers close access to spatial resources required for the educational model: places for academic work by groups and individuals, places for activity work by groups and individuals, places for instructional storage, and student restrooms. Each of the self-contained modules provides access to whole group space, small group space, an outdoor classroom, and large group space. This collection of spaces allows a range of resources for students and teachers to learn and explore.
The design response to the educational program at Crow Island is noteworthy. It has been explored over the last 70 years in similar formats: The Darmstadt School by Hans Scharoun, is an organic response.The Monkegaard School in Copenhagen by Arne Jacobsen creates an ordered system of classrooms and courtyards. And like Saarinen at Crow Island, Jacobsen provided a complete design package from chairs, desks, textiles, lighting, and door hardware. Herman Hertzberger’s Delft Montessori School provides an interior-focused version, providing a similar mix of learning spaces: dynamic places for individual and group academics and hands-on activities.
Munkegaard School. Classrooms organized around private courtyards. Learning spaces include group classroom, individual work area, and outdoor classroom. Furniture, textiles, hardware, and lighting designed to reinforce the school's educational concepts. Munkegaard School, Copenhagen Denmark. Architect: Arne Jacobsen, 1955. Image: VS Museum Collection.
Perhaps the most important lesson from Crow Island, however, is a lesson of process: Educators working together with architects and furniture designers to understand essential educational goals, translating educational ideas into a language that designers understand, and developing flexible design solutions for spaces that support educational ideas. The process allows designers to shape environments that facilitate the work of students and teachers engaged in learning. Environments that anticipate physical, emotional, and educational needs and gracefully respond to those needs with a “yes.”