Professor and Professional Specialist
Thinking three-dimensionally makes students better architects. You have to think three-dimensionally when drawing two dimensionally. For some people, it is a God-given talent, for others it is not.”
Robert Brandt had just sent Louisville’s Chapman Friedman Gallery a circus-themed cabinet he made from curly-maple wood, cut especially to show off tiger-stripe patterns in the grain. With its hand-painted front and side panels---replicas of 1920s Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey circus posters---complete with candy-striped awnings and ornamental tent-pole tops, the cabinet looked like a museum piece paying homage to the greatest show on earth.
“Each piece I do is something new,” Brandt says. “It is not a reproduction of anything that exists. Creativity is key; I am an artist and sculptor before I am a furniture builder or craftsman.”
Brandt’s personal design studio is located on Bond Hall’s lower level, along with the woodshop that houses the School’s furniture design concentration. Part of Brandt’s agreement when he was hired in 1992 by former architecture chairman Thomas Gordon Smith was to maintain a professional presence within the School. “It is important for students to see my work progress,” Brandt says. “Along with the students I take a pile of rough lumber to a finished project.”
Furniture design programs are typically part of university art departments, not schools of architecture. Notre Dame is the only university in the nation that exclusively operates its furniture design concentration out of an architecture program. Not only do students see the relationship between furniture and architecture, Brandt says, but they turn two-dimensional designs into three-dimensional objects.
“Thinking three-dimensionally makes students better architects,” Brandt says. “You have to think three-dimensionally when drawing two dimensionally. For some people, it is a God-given talent, for others it is not.”
Students design projects using historical precedents, although work must be of original design. To excel in the concentration, students must have an excellent design and flawless craftsmanship in executing it. Brandt also promotes “tried and true techniques” such as putting a piece of steel wool (or nails) in vinegar to create wood-coloring stain. “I encourage the old processes until I am convinced something new is better,” Brandt says. “I show the students the past is relevant.”
The concentration, open only to upper classmen, was slow to catch on. The first two years only a handful of male students enrolled. Brandt did not want it to be a boy’s club and invited female students to take the class. Today, females make up more than half the students, with five to 10 percent of architecture students electing to participate.
And students are using their skills in the workplace. Heather Reilly von Mering, B.Arch ’03, says, “Clients are always asking to have a piece of furniture to match their millwork. I use the construction methods (Brandt) taught me in the design and development of built-in cabinetry and other custom pieces.”
Brandt’s handiwork is on display in galleries in Louisville, New Orleans, Connecticut and throughout the Midwest, a showcase for his talent since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Southern Indiana. An art major specializing in drawing, painting and ceramics, Brandt did not start working with wood until his senior year. As a student he won top awards for his first projects from juries of design professionals at major craft exhibitions. It encouraged him to pursue a Master’s in wood sculpture from Indiana State University.
These days, after experimenting with various styles, Brandt’s work tends to reflect his interest in the Biedermeier style (clean, simple lines designed on a small scale often with whimsical styling seen in Germany in the mid 19th-century) and other forms of the 1820s and 1830s. Still Brandt always explores new ideas. “I don’t work with styles or periods of furniture,” he says, “I appreciate fine craftsmanship or the manner in which one expresses an idea with clarity.”
Brandt’s pieces typically cost $3,500 to $8,000 in a gallery, with commissioned work for say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, running $10,000 and beyond.
Eventually Brandt would like to offer the concentration to non-architecture students. “Every Notre Dame student should be able to benefit from the unique program we have here.”