Skip to content

40 years of Design and Making: Celebrating the Life of Andy Vanags

Andris (“Andy”) Vanags was instrumental in the initiation of the design/build program and the creation of furniture studios that have become hallmarks of the Department of Architecture. The furniture program has grown from a 3-credit course introducing students to the study of “making,” to a 6-credit studio that now sometimes includes traveling to Denmark and working with renowned Danish furniture makers.

Each year, students have the opportunity to design and fabricate their own piece of furniture using the facilities located in the College of Built Environments. Students, many of whom have no furniture making experience, are able to learn how to craft and design their pieces using tools in our wood and metal labs, in addition to the laser cutters and CNC routers. Keeping in mind scale, costs, deadlines, and materials, students are expected to complete their furniture piece within the ten week quarter. The pace is quick, with students spending most of their free time outside of studio and on weekends in the shop making mock-ups, sanding, and sketching out ideas.

Prof. Jeffrey Ochsner, author of the 2012 book Furniture Studio, was a longtime colleague and friend of Andy’s.   Upon Andy’s recent death (on October 13, 2019, at his home in San Diego, CA) he penned the following tribute, which we share with you below.

As a member of the Department of Architecture for forty years, Andy was a key figure in the development of the department and college culture of craft and making, Andy was born in Latvia, in 1942.  In 1944 his family fled to the west, and eventually came to the United States settling in Brooklyn, where Andy graduated from high school in 1960. During the summers he worked as a carpenter. After a term at Pratt Institute, he came to Seattle and soon found work as a member of the team working on the Dyna-Soar space plane at Boeing. In December 1964, he entered the UW Art School in the program in industrial design.

Andy graduated with his BFA in Industrial Design in 1968.  During his years as a student, he had been introduced to our shop facilities through shared courses; he also befriended Professor Phil Thiel.  When shop director Berner Kirkebo was forced to resign due to illness, the college (through Phil Thiel) offered the position to Andy.  He became the shop director in April 1969.  Initially Andy was a staff member, teaching just a single class on tools and materials, but once Gould Hall opened, he developed a suite of courses establishing the shops (now Fabrication Labs) as a center of pedagogy.  Over time his courses included “Materials and Processes,” “Wood Design,” Light Frame Assemblies,” Technological Foundations” (Arch 300 studio) and others.

In 1977, Andy and Barry Onouye initiated the department’s first design/build offering, a summer course titled ”Playground Construction.”  Almost a decade later, when liability became an issue, Barry and Andy redirected the design-build studio to other kinds of projects. (After 1992, Steve Badanes took on the design-build studio and he continues to lead it today.)

In the late 1970s and 1980s Andy made connections with the growing number of studio furniture makers in our region, and, in 1984, he offered the Architecture Department’s first furniture design and fabrication class, initially for only three credits.  In 1989 the furniture class became a six-credit studio which Andy, assisted by new shop manager Penny Maulden, taught for the next twenty years.  By 1991 the furniture studio was offered to graduate students one quarter, and to senior undergraduates another quarter — the pattern that continues today.

From the very first, the quality of the work in the furniture studio was recognized through the numerous awards received by student projects in professional furniture competitions in the region, and in a national competition in 2004.  Five student projects were also included in the book 500 Chairs in 2008.

Andy fully retired from teaching after the Winter Quarter 2009 furniture studio.  The furniture program has continued under the leadership of Kimo Griggs and Penny Maulden.  Although some of the classes that Andy created have been discontinued, and others have changed with the introduction of digital tools and techniques, the culture of craft and making that Andy developed in his forty years in the department and college has become a significant part of our identity.

In 2018 Andy Vanags was recognized with the CBE Distinguished Faculty Award for Lifetime Achievement.  Andy touched many lives and helped shape many careers.

Jeffrey Ochsner
October 2019

A celebration of Andy’s life will take place in Gould Hall on Saturday afternoon, January 25, 2020. Please watch for more details that should be posted soon.