Test drive for a College House makeover

Amy Friedland (C’05)

Modernist marvel

Amy Friedland (C’05) served as a tester of furniture for the Hamilton College House renovation project. Her suite was outfitted with modernist furniture.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

The multi-year project to renovate Hamilton, Harrison and Harnwell College Houses is doing more than patching the concrete, replacing the windows and repairing the mechanical systems.

The interiors are getting a makeover, too. And a big part of that makeover is new furniture.

And when a large institution like Penn goes furniture shopping, it gets to ask for samples to try out.

“We set up four schemes that had different charcteristics,” said Boyd Petterson of MGA Partners, the architect who worked on the project. These were then installed in suites in Hamilton College House.

“Two were [collections of] individual pieces, with modern and classical designs. One was modular—a kit of different parts that people could put together in different ways—and the fourth was typical wood dorm room furniture.”

Professor of History of Art David Brownlee, former director of College Houses and Academic Services and the man in charge of the furniture project, said that College House staff were particularly taken with the modernist grouping. “The renovated Harrison House looks so strongly and excitingly modern that we wanted to pick up furniture that advertised that modern look,” he said.

Hamilton residents also got to comment on the furniture during open-house showings after the suites were set up during Fall Break.

Some items got universal praise. “Everybody loved the two [Eero] Saarinen-designed armchairs,” Brownlee said.

On the other hand, he said, “We had a sample system that had a bed with a desk on one end and a modular storage system, and the beds could be used as bunk beds. Everybody hated that.”

And the suite residents got to put the furniture to the test. Amy Friedland (C’05) was one of them. Her suite got the modernist ensemble.

“Overall, I’d say that I’m satisfied with the new furniture and very happy with the way that this project turned out,” she said in an e-mail.

The staff have also gotten advice about durability from both the students and Facilities Services. The project team has already decided to reupholster the existing sofas—“They are more durable than anything we could buy now,” Brownlee said—but all the other furnishings will be brand-new. Friedland said, “The new desks are nice and seem pretty durable, but they seem more appropriate for an office than a dorm room.”

That’s just what the staff had in mind. “Dorm furniture looks to me like something designed for a room full of seven-year-olds,” Brownlee said. “These look like rooms set up for people who live in skyscrapers.”

The final selection of furniture should take place by the end of this month.

Originally published on January 16, 2003