Valparaiso University Chapel Seating

Reinvigorating a mid-century modern chapel

The mid-century modern design of Coventry Cathedral profoundly influenced the design of the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso. Although separated by many miles, these two places of worship share not only an architectural connection but also a common philosophy; the Community of the Cross of Nails - a community that connects the spirit of togetherness, learning, and acceptance across the globe. We set out to ensure that the chapel seating we designed would create an additional parallel connection.

The existing furniture was at odds with the grand mid-century modern design of the Chapel. It gradually became clear to the client that a fresh approach was required for the chapel seating. The original pews were heavy and didn’t allow for the multi-use of the chapel that was urgently required. As the second largest space in the University, the Chapel team needed to be able to rearrange and store their furniture easily, for different purposes (secular and religious), multiple times a month.

Luke Hughes Coventry Chair in European Oak - Front

A fresh approach to Valparaiso University's Chapel of Resurrection seating

In 2014 the Dean and key decision makers at the Chapel of Resurrection in Indiana, USA, contacted the Gordon Russell Trust, in the UK, to inquire if anyone was making the chairs designed for Coventry Cathedral. The chairs had been out of production for over 30 years.

The original drawings were unusable, not because they were illegible, but because the original construction method was no longer economically viable; whereas modern techniques could deliver a commercially viable chair.

The original drawings and models needed to be re-drafted into a computer system, as today’s makers no longer work from hand-drawn diagrams. The Gordon Russell Trust, therefore, needed the help of a specialist and detail-driven design and production team to create drawings, as well as engineering amends for an updated version of the iconic chair, ready for manufacture.

As a trusted partner and friend to the Gordon Russell Trust, we were the only designers contacted and were tasked to find out if the Coventry chair could be re-engineered for manufacture in a modern workshop and for a modern audience, the ergonomics of chapel seating being very different in Midwest America today than in post-war Britain nearly 70 years ago.

With very few detailed drawings and only a few original chairs available for us to inspect, our brief was simple - update the Coventry chair for modern machining and modern use.

Developing chapel seating for a midwest, mid-century icon

We developed our prototype chairs with a wider seat, a paired-down and slightly more angled backrest, and a more robust internal locking leg and frame structure. The prototype chair is inherently wider than the original, but on closer inspection, one can also see the more subtle differences between the two. We had succeeded in creating a visually similar chair designed for modern machining and the contemporary user.

Within ten weeks we had transformed a set of historic drawings into sample CAD files and prototype chairs for the client. To say they were delighted was an understatement. We had answered their brief: can the Coventry chair be updated for modern machining and modern use? Yes, yes it can.


How to utilise effective space planning

We travelled to Indiana to visit the chapel and meet the decision-makers, students, and clergy. Seeing the building, enabled us to suggest ways in which space planning could be more effective and which chapel seating would work within the area.

We design furniture to last for 30-50 years or more, so are always mindful of the changing use of buildings and chapel seating to ensure the best value for our clients.

With decades of experience, we tend to find that the issues a client has with their space can be answered by us - including answers to problems that may arise in the future, and solutions to the issues that didn’t know they had.

Valparaiso University Chapel requested space planning and furniture that could accommodate their need to host services in alternative layouts, graduation ceremonies, concerts, harvest feasts and other large student gatherings that cannot be fulfilled by their sports stadium. Our space planning exercise showed how the Coventry chair could be easily used, moved, and stored.

During this stage of the process, before the order was placed, we worked very closely with our European timber suppliers to ensure there were enough sections of the timber needed to fulfil the project without delaying our delivery date. An order was placed quickly, and we began production of 1,545 Coventry chairs. We delivered the Coventry chairs to the Chapel of Resurrection in Indiana USA, on time, 17 weeks after the raising of the first order.

The Chapel is now able to host many different types of services, concerts, and student events that significantly impact on the wellbeing and support of the student and adult congregation, and wider audience.

The design and material of the Coventry chairs mirror the mid-century modern aesthetic of the Chapel of Resurrection - they look as if they have always been there - which is precisely our intention in every project we undertake.

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