Silas’s Bench

January 26, 2010

Slas's Bench

I built the bench in this picture last year. Designing and making a new piece is always an emotion-filled process for me, but this bench was a completely different experience. Silas Bennett was a journalism student at Keene State College; he was heading into his final year when he was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Last spring, around the time when Silas would have graduated, the school hosted a ceremony in the Media Arts Center, dedicating this bench in his memory… I was among the people who were asked to say a few words:

The Design Process for Silas’s Bench

The design process for this Memorial Bench for Silas Bennett began with a meeting at my studio with Silas’s mother, Lorraine, his sister, Jesse, and his close friend, Zack. Their request was very simple and straightforward: they wanted me to design and build a bench to be placed in the Media Arts Center at Keene State College as a memorial to Silas. By the time they left we had settled on an overall length of approximately six feet, and the choice of Ash as the material it would be built from, and not much more… beyond that it was up to me. To help me in the process, they left me with an album of photographs and copies of the eulogies that were given at Silas’s memorial service.

I set to work on the design for the bench right away, trying to let the conversations we had had, and the materials they left with me “infuse” the design. This was quite a different process from my usual approach. With most furniture commissions, the process centers on the physical context of the proposed piece, and what I, as the designer, want so say through this piece. In other words, it’s kind of about me. Well, this commission wasn’t about me, it was about Silas.

Designing a piece of furniture to say something about Silas was a unique challenge for me. To start with, I didn’t want to insert any literal images into the piece. I simply wanted to allow the ideas and themes of Silas’s personality and life – those things that I had seen, heard, and read – to work into and through my thoughts. An email I received from Lorraine had referenced some of these words and themes: “regal… humble… magical… solid, yet with lightness… Silas had a big presence, yet an energy that was extremely approachable”. I especially appreciated her insistence in portraying Silas as a real and complex person, and not a cardboard cut-out.

With that background on my design process, I will try to give you a few of my thoughts on specific aspects of the design:

I started with the ends of the bench and quickly decided that they should be rather heavy and solid to anchor the piece, both visually and physically. I ended them at arm height, rather than extend them up to enclose the back, and angled them outward toward the front to make the bench more “approachable” to users. And although they are solid and elemental forms, their upward and outward flare is intended to give the piece a more uplifting feel.

The height, depth, and angles of the seat and back were based on the request that this bench was intended to be used, not just looked at. This should be a comfortable bench.

The most unique element of the design of this piece is the connection between the seat and the back. Both the seat and the back are made up of a series of boards or planks, which taper in width toward their connection point, and actually pass between each other. I pictured them as interlocked fingers. To me they are representative of interconnectedness… of Silas’s life being connected to so many other lives. The supports beneath the seat and behind the back are relieved, or “scalloped”, so that each plank of the seat or back is attached to its own individual point of support, and yet all are joined together, which is a metaphorical reference to the supportive community that Silas was part of.

The final part of the design (and the one part that I had to “sell” people on) is the top profile of the back of the bench. There is a semi-random pattern of differing heights to the fifteen slats which make up the back. This rhythmic stepping across the back came to me in a kind of “waking dream”. Something in my sub-conscious mind came up with this and planted it in my minds eye. I couldn’t shake it, so I decided to run with it. It looks like music to me… rhythm… vibrancy. And also, oddly, like a city skyline.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be involved in this memorial. Even though I didn’t know Silas very well, I feel a sense of connection to him because of this project and process.

After the dedication, Silas’ mother wrote a letter to the local papers, I will leave you with her words:

Lorraine's letter