When Carleton College in North-field, Minn., added craft workshops to its art department in 1950, the idea was to foster productive leisure among the intelligentsia, not to turn out passels of arty footstools or salad bowls. As a liberal arts school catering primarily to affluent youth, Carleton strove to liberate the brain, not to gnarl the hands.

Times change, but the need for brainy students to let off steam by making things persists. Carleton's workshops -- for ceramics, jewelry, printmaking and woodworking -- are now part of the studio arts curriculum. For the past decade the college has even offered a course called "Woodworking: The Table," in which kids apply aesthetic theory to slabs of wood.

Coinciding with that class, the school's art gallery has, through March 10, a smart show of contemporary furniture -- tables, chairs, stools -- designed and fashioned by 16 Midwestern artisans. Pieces range from an elegant table handmade from exotic woods to funky chairs of bent willow, from a floor lamp shaded with Japanese paper to manufactured chairs. All of the artists live and work in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan.

The show's variety -- from wood inlaid in the 18th-century French tradition to prototypes for 21st-century mass production -- were chosen for conceptual reasons, said Laurel Bradley, Carleton's director of exhibitions. She co-curated the show with Glenn Gordon, a St. Paul artist and writer.

"One of our overarching ideas was to demonstrate how woodworkers translate a concept into an object that is both functional and sculptural," said Bradley.

As a case in point, she showed an unusual chair and what appeared to be some boxy paintings by Tom Loeser, head of the furniture design program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Loeser's chair consists of rectangular slabs of wood hinged to slender rolling-pin tubes capped by cones and other geometric shapes. The parts are painted in marbleized patterns of rose and green, blue and taupe. Nodding to a space-saving Shaker tradition, the chair can be hung on a wall as well as planted on the floor. When hung, the chair folds flat and looks like a stylishly deconstructed painting. His boxy paintings are actually little cabinets that have brightly colored cubbyholes behind their striped, hand-gouged surfaces.

Another academic, Dean Wilson, who runs the furniture design program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, cheerfully violated traditional expectations about material and design in his sassy little "martini cart." Perched on colorful, rubberized wheels, the cart has a Lucite handle, shelves trimmed with aqua laminate and railings of metal tubing to confine the cocktail glasses and shakers.

Throughout the show, styles and materials range from aristocratic to folksy. Tim Gorman's elegant "Ellipsoid Table" combines West African bubinga, walnut, birdseye maple and ebony into a curvaceous Art Deco masterpiece polished to a silken sheen. Ross Peterson creates elegant, Japanese-style music stands and benches of similarly exotic woods. Linda Sue Eastman of Winona, Minn., uses hide to luxurious effect, upholstering a blond wood chaise with leather tooled in baroque patterns, and trimming a Bugatti-modern footstool with pleated aqua suede. By contrast, Clifton Monteith of Lake Ann, Mich., nails and bends native aspen and willow into fantastic, folk-art chairs worthy of Hobbit royalty.

As certain woods become more precious and endangered, some designers have cleverly used recycled materials. Richard Helgeson made handsome end tables from Douglas fir salvaged from benches in the University of Minnesota's old Williams Arena. Carl Gromoll, who often cuts his own wood at his studio in Eagle River, Wis., created a table of swan-like grace from laminated pine and glass.

The finer points of industrial design -- versatility, efficiency, economy of line and material -- are eloquently articulated in the "Molti" chairs of Dan Cramer. The Minneapolis firm Blu Dot pays homage to the mid-20th-century modernism of Charles and Ray Eames with a pair of bent-plywood chairs on stainless steel bases, and George Mahoney echoes the basket-weave bentwood chairs of Frank Gehry in a chair made of curvaceous slats. Cameron Van Dyke's conical stool apparently is made from carbon fiber material used in aircraft.

And there are moments of inspired eccentricity and individualism: Keith Moore's lamp that holds Japanese paper in a wire cage inspired by a gardener's tomato frame, Tom Oliphant's crazy yin-yang rocking chair, Bert Taylor's prototypes for playful assemble-it-yourself furniture, and John Nesset's magnificent bench made from a 7-foot-long, 30-inch-wide slab of white ash. They don't make trees that big anymore.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431