Amy Thornton graduated from the Master in Design Studies, Risk and Resilience program in May of 2020. She is currently living on, and repairing, a farm in Vermont, while conducting a PhD in The University of Washington College of Built Environments. 

This work was originally posted on The COJUJO Project


by Amy Brooks Thornton & Emily Jones

Rough sawn cedar, stainless steel screws, tung oil, 1 Tbsp Titebond #3 wood glue

Height: 66” Width: 44” Length: 66”

“Children should wherever possible have a room in which they can do what they want, in which they are in control. Everything within belongs to them. Their imaginations shape it. No external hindrances disturb them…everything accommodates them. The form corresponds to their size. The practical goals don’t hinder their possibility to play.” – Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (Siebenbrodt, 2004)

“Play was not something Bauhaus minds circumscribed within the realm of childhood…Adult Bauhäusler were well acquainted with the relationships between…material and psychological worlds…Siedhoff-Buscher intended [the movable boxes]…as elements to be constructed with, played, or sat in—elements that describe time, space, and movement in much the same way as performance…Toy design transcended the boundaries of child and adult, of private creation and public performance, and was an interdisciplinary practice…these object were…produced in connection with the broader notion of creative play.”—Michelle M. Fisher (Fisher, 2004)

When we move or make with our body and material, particularly material as close to its beginnings as possible, and as we listen and respond to those movings and makings, we learn, know, design, and create with all of our senses. We embody knowing which our creations reflect. We engage with the infinite complexity found in bodies and raw material which even our best machine models cannot begin to replicate with accuracy. When we learn solely from books and screens, we limit our knowledge and our creative capacity as if we are drawing simple lines with fat crayons instead of creating a tapestry of an infinite number of intersecting threads.

Ultimately, the made object and all of its materiality becomes a source of embodied knowing for people who interact with it. They not only see it, but touch, smell, listen to, play with, and even taste it and so physically and sensorily understand its function. The user creates embodied memory which he or she recalls later, arousing the senses again.

To fully comprehend how objects —from toys to massive buildings—affect humans and the natural environment, the body must move within and around, sense, and respond to the object. How does this smell? What arises when I touch it? How does it affect listening, hearing? Can I play or work with this object? What does it elicit emotionally? How is it interacting with its environment from its source to its decomposition? How do our objects affect the bodies operating within and around the object? What do they inspire or compel us to do? In material, function, and form, do they serve as collaborator with the natural environment? Who or what made it? What will this object become?

“The etymological connection between mater and matter is an index of the close relationship of the female and the material in Western culture. This connection is at least as old as Plato’s separation of Being into matter and form, with matter as the mother and form as the father of Being” – (Fausch, 1996).

Plato, Descartes (cogito ergo sum), and Heidegger initiated the removal of matter (and the mother) from academia. Western European male philosophers encouraged a depreciation of “the feminine”, such as our relationship to the body—“but also the bodily in general: the concrete, the material, the empirical, the “brute fact,” the “dumb object”—terms which register the fear, contempt, and hatred in Western culture of “mere matter “ (Fausch, 1996, p 39, Hillman, 1978). The end result? “Abstraction, distortion, mistreatment, even banishment of the body” (Fausch, 1996). (Using the feminine this way might seem essentialist but here activating essentialism in order to deploy the connection already and historically made between “mater”, “matter” and body is useful (Fuss, 1989).

The power of hermeunetical truth emerges through “each act of sense-making…demands the activity of one’s own senses” (Katan, 2016).  Theory and the “mere matter” can and must be studied simultaneously, through the mind and the body.

It is a dangerous game to eliminate the raw material, the body, and the “dumb object” in teaching, learning, and making and replace it with simulations. Ignorance and harm arises when our knowing and creations arise from sensually diminished layers between ourselves and the infinite tapestry of “mere matter.”

In making the outdoor standing desk, we moved, designed, and made with raw material, developing new embodied, full-sensory knowledge and also scores of new and enthralling questions to pursue.

The desk is an invitation to work, learn, interact, and play outdoors. Made from locally grown and milled cedar, a few screws, less than a tablespoon of Titebond #3 glue, tung oil it and made by two women, and the support of the Visual and Environmental Studies woodshop and staff. The desktop shape and the dimensions were based on multiples of 11. Test 1.1 will be one of many which play with the same inquiry.


The project and its considerations

The outdoor standing desk inspires engagement and conversation about potential design solutions for living and working outdoors. It responds to:

–       The fact that 90% of a North American’s life is spent indoors and the human and environmental health ramifications of that fact;

–       Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s work as children’s furniture and toy designer;

–       The increased dependence on simulated design processes and…

–       The related loss of materiality, the body, full-sensory making and learning, and tangible nature in pedagogy and design.

–       The dominance of male Bauhausslers in furniture construction and the relegation of Bauhaus women to the weaving studio; (It is said that Gropius’ believed that women couldn’t think in 3D.)

Design considerations

Democratic, functional, and slow design and production

Slow design and production results from the inexpensive, DIY, non-mechanized production. The desk is inexpensive and easy enough for almost anyone to build themselves, which means using few tools, local materials, and hand, not mechanized, construction. The desk takes responsibility for functionality in such a way that the user can engage in work without worry about structure; the structure is stable and weather tolerant.

Whole systems design and ecological behavioral health

Slowness also emerges from the consideration of whole systems materials and best practices which change for each geographic location and climate. The design is scalable for different geographic areas only upon careful consideration of local resources and impact on local ecology. The project is informed by whole systems design which considers full life cycle from source, material, and production to maintenance and decomposition. It emphasizes interconnection and impacts of ecological, social, and economic systems and the elements within each system. It understands that the health of the natural environment and humans are one.

Design for ecological behavioral health, a form of whole systems thinking, fosters thriving of the natural environment and inspires and facilitates behavioral health for humans. The project design specifically addresses indoor lifestyles by inviting people into its outdoor space, facilitating work which is typically indoors to be performed outside, increasing exposure to the natural environment and daylight, reducing sedentarianism, and increasing physical activity.

In its material and production processes, the desk strives to limit the extent of material geography, reduce pollution and total embodied energy, and maintain energy feedback within the local (100 mile) system.  Other design considerations include weather, sound, light, thermodynamic surfaces, ecological impact, and life-cycle and emergy analysis of materials used.



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Descartes, R., & Lafleur, L. (1964). Philosophical essays: Discourse on method; Meditations; Rules for the direction of the mind (The Library of liberal arts ; 99). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Fausch, D. (1996). The Knowledge of the Body and the Presence of History—Toward a Feminist Architecture. In Architecture and Feminism (pp. 38-59). New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Fuss, D. (1989). Essentially speaking : Feminism, nature & difference. New York: Routledge.

Hillman, J. (1978). Part three: On psychological femininity. The myth of analysis : Three essays in archetypal psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

Katan, E., Cull Ó Maoilearca, L., Lagaay, A., Rokem, F., & Daddario, W. (2016). Embodied Philosophy in Dance: Gaga and Ohad Naharin’s Movement Research (Performance Philosophy). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.