The Academy: Furniture

Part 5 of our 6-part series
<<Part 4: Middle and High School Design

Working in tandem with furniture-maker Scott McHugh, Fellows, and architects explored how educational furnishings might add to and blend with their whole-child concepts. Primary objectives centered not on basics like storage, but on flexibility, freedom of movement and the ability for students to shift between collaborative modes and individualized learning and testing.

Large, modular-style tables were designed to replace rows of desks. Via the use of magnets and concave shapes, they were designed to “snap” together, forming large islands or collages of furniture for collaboration. Pieces were designed to roll smoothly, quietly and with ease, so that teachers and students could reconfigure with little to no disruption to the flow of classroom activities.

In auditorium-style spaces, stadium seating was equipped with built-in storage. Desks, tables and other learning surfaces were designed to serve as surfaces for sketch on. “Everything can be marked on with dry erase marker, then erased,” Laughlin explained. “Kids can sit and draw or stand and draw, and tops were designed to be flipped horizontally so they could show what they’re working on.”


The concept of flip-top furnishings led to another design feature: bullet-resistance. By integrating the material into flip-down tabletops, designers developed a means for adding protective security to classrooms in a way that’s quick and responsive, but unobtrusive to the learning environment.

“Our goal was never to create a piece of safety equipment, but to create a piece of functional, educational furniture that—oh, by the way—doubles as a protective feature.”

Freebird McKinney


Ultimately, the group’s goal for furnishings extended beyond classroom function, to inspiring the way students feel about learning and collaboration. “We’re trying to create an environment that sets a tone, through furniture, that allows for inspiration and creativity,” said McHugh, whose company provides furniture for such companies as Apple, Google, and Tesla.

Through their discussions, Fellows established that an educational environment should affect students the same way that corporate and creative offices are designed to enhance the mindset of employees.

“It wasn’t really about instruction. I mean, in terms of learning, it was more about how the environment makes them feel and how they view themselves as students. It was about so much more than just education.”

Lisa Goodwin, on the group’s approach to furnishings

Goodwin said the same applies to public perceptions. After moving from what was essentially a condemned building into a new facility earlier in her career, she witnessed this firsthand.

“It wasn’t until we moved into that new building that people started noticing what a great school we were,” she says. “That next year we were voted like one of the top 25 new schools in North Carolina.” Between the two settings, nothing changed about the school’s curricula or teachers, she said. “But we went to this new and nicely furnished building and all of a sudden people started noticing that we were doing great things. It changed the way they felt.”

McHugh introduced the idea that furnishings can and should go a step further, by meshing with school curricula. His firm has found success with this in the museum sector, he said, designing furniture around onsite learning programs. In those cases, CEF is provided with a curriculum to design around. The same, he said, can be applied to K-12.