David Walker’s Chairs

I admit I knew nothing of Boston, let alone its history, when I began this project. As a team, we were required to try to conceptualize and research how the interior of David Walker’s house looked. An African American abolitionist, David Walker lived on the Northern Slope of Beacon Hill in the 1820s, and is best known for writing his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. In his influential Appeal, he addresses American hypocrisies in the context of freedom and Christianity. I have learned a large amount about Boston’s history throughout this project, finding it especially interesting to learn as I attempt to employ the perspectives used by David Walker himself.

Image showing the first chair I created on SketchUp along side an image of the same chair but touched up after I learned more on SketchUp. Inspired by a Windsor styled chair.
Image showing the first chair I created on SketchUp alongside an image a revised model inspired by a Windsor-styled chair.

The challenging research process has also been a conducive one. Information is hard to come across regarding the dwellings that were present in 1820s Boston, specifically on Belknap Street or the Northern Slope of Beacon Hill. In addition, with respect to the life of David Walker from birth to death, some inconsistencies were found on the internet. Through research and team discussions we were able to form an understanding of Walker’s work and part of his home life in Boston. We know he worked as a clothes dealer based on advertisements and records of the time, and that he most likely wrote some of his Appeal pamphlets at home. We also know that he was a kind man who offered help and shelter to many African American fugitives and slaves. Significantly, some two hundred years later, we do not know what the inside of his home looked like. It goes without saying that one’s dwelling can say a lot about you, and may reveal both obvious and subtle traits about your character. An attempt to virtually reconstruct the interior of this very influential person’s home will bring greater awareness of the history of African Americans in Boston. Thus, the research process was more an investigation into who David Walker was, and how connecting dots about his surroundings could help us form a visual understanding of his and his family’s home on Belknap Street (now Joy Street).

Image showing my reference picture for an Empire-style chair and a SketchUp tab showing some process on modeling the back support.

Thanks to the tutorials given by Professor Linker and Liam, learning to model in SketchUp revealed new perspectives in considering the art and design of furniture/objects. I was surprised at how much more demanding digitally constructing a rather simple-looking chair was. It forced me to decompose and recompose elements of the chair, giving me a newfound appreciation for furniture makers. I modeled two Empire-styled chairs (which was in fashion in Boston at the time Walker was living there), a pitcher with the help of a teammate, and a Windsor chair. Some challenging aspects of digitally modeling objects in SketchUp proved to teach me more rather than take away from the experience. The online SketchUp glitches often, while at other times my brain is the one glitching where I find myself overcomplicating simple design. I’ve learned to look at my reference more often, drawing it out in a simplified manner to helped me uncomplicate a seemingly complicated object.

Here is an image of the two Empire-style chairs I modeled in SketchUp.

Digitally modeling antique objects, such as Empire-style chairs has caused me to first, research the chair style, the time period when it was most popular, materials used in making the chair, who made it, who owned it, and more. Although some of the information used when digitally modeling the chair – especially  when the information is more specific and arcane and more than likely cannot be found – helps create a spatial sense of the chair’s home and use, the research and digital modeling assists in forming a well-rounded image of the time period. Retracing the history of a chair, or type of furniture style, then breaking it down to digitally remodel it unlocks interesting things one may have missed when researching earlier. For instance, what is the curvature of the wood? Or what is the placement of the chair? Is it placed in the living room? Bedroom? Kitchen? This chair has a cushion, and so I wonder if the cushion pattern matched other aspects of the room such as the curtains or wallpaper? All these questions about a specific chair may not be found necessarily on the internet, but they still help generate a spatial concept of where the chair lived in my mind.

Here is a version of a pitcher that I made in SketchUp with the help of a team member.

Another surprising aspect of the project was learning about Unity, how powerful of a tool it is for creating virtual spaces. Thanks to the previous team’s work, I learned the tool of color mapping an object before bringing it into Unity to be textured and playing with different finishes to make the object look more realistic was very entertaining. I look forward to learning more about the program and bringing my rather flat-looking furniture to life in Unity.

A close-up of a chair as I was applying wood textures to it.

Researching and Modeling

So far, this project has been both very interesting and very challenging. I didn’t know anything about 3D modeling going into it, and I only had a basic understanding of David Walker and Boston’s abolitionist history. Prior to beginning this project, I had been working with the National Park Service in Boston on a digital project for the African Meeting House, so I did have a general background on the Boston abolitionist movement, but I was still missing a lot of information. Thus, this project began with a lot of research. I learned about David Walker’s life and legacy, about his home on Beacon Hill, and about his used clothing shop. Mostly, though, I learned that there is so much that we don’t know and so much information missing.

As frustrating as it was, I found it exciting to have to think creatively about new resources to investigate and to try to puzzle together Walker’s life. Before this, I hadn’t thought much about how a person’s gender, race, and social class could impact how well (or if at all) their life events were recorded. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense, but when I began my work I was surprised to find this.

Later in the project, I began trying to help research Walker’s house: the history of the
property, the floorplan, and what the views out of his windows might have been. This was especially challenging because, in addition to the fact that government sources did not always record the possessions and movements of Black people at this time, the land around Belknap Street (now Joy Street) had undergone many property rearrangements and many street name changes. Some of the most exciting resources I found came from this search. For me, finding and looking through the Taking Books (essentially old tax records listing names and possessions, but not always addresses) from the late 1700s and early 1800s was really fascinating. At some point, I started recognizing names of people in different tax books and started to piece some stories together. That was especially rewarding and I felt like I was finally beginning to get a grasp on the information.

A drawing of Beacon Hill's Streets, with present and past names.
Kira Torrieri, Drawing of Beacon Hill Streets Past & Present

In addition to research, I also spent a lot of my time working on 3D modeling. The first thing
we learned how to model in Google SketchUp was a simple chair. I had used Google SketchUp as a child, but not at all since then, so it was both exciting and difficult to dive back in after so long. After making some practice models and trying to figure out the different tools at my disposal, I began my first real SketchUp model: a hearth. I had decided I wanted to learn about kitchens and model items that might have been in Walker’s kitchen, so this seemed a good place to start. I had found an interesting resource called The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts, which details recipes, etiquette procedures, and cleaning tips for the maintenance of large households. Combining information from this book with my other kitchen research, I also modeled a cooking pot and fireplace tools. The cooking pot was really challenging for me because of all of the different curves and I went through several drafts of it before I was satisfied, but when it was completed I felt very
accomplished.

A progress photo of a cooking pot model made in Google SketchUp.
Kira Torrieri, Cooking Pot Model Progress in Google SketchUp

Once models had been created in SketchUp, the next step was to import them into Unity and add them to our full model of Walker’s house. I admittedly have not done as much work in Unity thus far, although learning about texturing and lighting and seeing how much more realistic it can make our models look is very intriguing!

I had already been excited about the possibilities of combining technology and history because of my work with the National Park Service, and this project really emphasized the potential of this type of collaboration. Technology gives us another way to interact with historical information.

It has the potential to be more immersive, more expansive, and more accessible than other sources of information such as reading a scholarly paper or visiting a historic site in person. Engaging with an interactive and historically accurate model is the next best thing to an actual visit to the historical site – something ideal but often not possible. Technology can also contain more information simply because it lacks the physical constraints of a real space and can, unlike a book, directly link to other resources for further learning. Furthermore, technology can enable people who may not be able to digest dense scholarly writing or may not have the means to travel to a historic site to engage with the information and hopefully connect to it. 3D modeling is especially powerful because of its immersiveness. In my opinion, the thing that makes using technologies such as 3D modeling in historical scholarship so powerful is the ability to help a wider audience connect more intimately with historical material. I have personally felt more connected to Walker’s life after trying to physically reconstruct his home, and I hope that this project will help others engage with Walker in a more personal way.

Post-Processing and other Environmental Effects in Unity

Note: We realized yesterday that we lost some recent posts due to a server error. Over the next few days we’ll be working to restore those.

We’re now at the point in the project where the team has modeled and applied materials to several historical objects. When I teach students how to build models for virtual reality projects, I have them focus on wire-frame geometry and we map out places where we will apply materials to in the future. We build those materials in Unity and give said materials values that have them behave like glass, metal, wood, etc. They just don’t always look like these materials until we’ve added some environmental effects.

So sometimes, you spend a lot of time building objects like this and their appearance isn’t very satisfying yet:

A 3D rendered scene including three cubes: a glass, mirror, and wooden cube, centered in a room with white walls and green floors.
Screenshot of Unity scene before we’ve applied reflection probes and post-processing effects. From a tutorial given by Jessica Linker and Liam MacLean on 6-17-21.

Yesterday we showed the student team how to add some layers of realism with reflection probes (Unity objects that determine what is reflected in reflective materials) and by building post-processing filters to augment what the main camera sees. The main camera usually determines what the user sees when wearing a virtual reality headset to view a project immersively.

Here’s what the same scene looks like with those objects installed and some of those effects applied:

Screenshot of the previous Unity scene with reflection probes and post-processing effects applied. From a tutorial by Jessica Linker and Liam MacLean given on 6-17-21.

I was aiming for a hazy look, as if someone had groggily walked into a room and encountered three mysterious cubes. The students were asked to imagine a way to style the scene using what they learned. We ended up with a range of different looks for the same objects, from an underwater look, to a retro video game look, to a spooky, shadowed look, and so on.

I often tell them that the trick to a lot of this is to let Unity do the heavy lifting. Also, post-processing can take the same scene and change the mood quickly. It’s much better to algorithmically update the values on a post-processing profile than it is to try to swap out textures for every object in a scene to create an atmospheric mood.

Some of these effects don’t always play well in VR, but that’s something we’ll fine tune when we have an assembled project we can playtest.