JoslynArt Museum is the current home to the exhibit The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design. The exhibit features a collection of 40 chairs drawn from the Jacobsen Collection of American Art and organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida. The chairs provide a fascinating representation of the development of American design and the Decorative Arts.
The line that separates the Fine Arts and the Decorative Arts has never been very solid. This display does nothing to make it more so, but maybe that is unnecessary. The exhibit features seating that is more sculpture than chair, and seats that are pure canvas to the artist’s whims. Some move, some rock, some might make your chiropractor apoplectic. But they all represent a time, a design philosophy, and American ingenuity.
The Art of Seating excels as an acknowledgement of the variety and depth of American design and innovation. It may be easy to cite gaps in any collection, and there may be some here, but it seemed a contiguous representation of different styles, movements and manufacturing processes.
Quite a few of the chairs in this collection were designed by famous architects; Saarinen, Wright, Venturi, Gehry, just to name a few. Frank Gehry probably has the most spartan chair in the show. The “Superlight” (2004) is a simple piece of sheet aluminum invisibly fastened to an aluminum tube that starts and ends on the back of the chair after going through about six bends. It looks as if it comes up short in the comfort department, but as an ultra-simple statement to form, it succeeds.
Robert Venturi is represented with one of his project chairs from Knoll. He was commissioned by the famous office furniture company to create a series of chairs, a couch, and some tables. The chairs were created by using the same bent-plywood base — legs, seat and back from two sheets — and he embellished each with motifs representing various movements in the Arts and design.
The basic structure of the chairs is exactly the same; a slightly clunky, armless, design that could serve as a side chair or table seating. The chair presented here, “The Sheraton” (1978,) is named for the late 18thCentury furniture designer Thomas Sheraton. It is a simple black enamel chair with a painted design of geometrics, Classical Greek forms and drapery motif. Venturi, who is known for bringing some decoration to the starkness of modernity.
There are only a few examples where art severely overrides function. The “Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1 Chair” (2003,) designed and built by Kenneth Smythe, has its inspiration and origins in such disparate sources as the philosophies of Bertrand Russel, the music of Frederick T.A. Delius, …and the Fibonocci sequence. Still functionally a chair, it’s a Wonka-ish sculptural contrivance of laminated wood and Formica that, though fun, defies further explanation and, one would hope, mass manufacture.
Also, in the more sculpture, less chair category, is Jon Brook’s “Solid Elm Ball Chair.” Exactly as titled, it is a highly-polished, hand-sculpted ball of Elm burl, with a scooped seat ground out of the top, sized apparently to fit a limited portion of the current American public. Not much back support is offered, but simply more of a stunning piece of wood craft and an example of how almost anything can become a chair.
What might at first appear to be some sort of novelty, one-off chair, is Wentzel Frederick’s “Texas Longhorn Arm Chair” (1890), a serious endeavor by an early American entrepreneur and cabinetmaker. Frederick saw the value in the mountains of discarded horns outside the slaughterhouses and started using the inexpensive material to build chairs. This award-winning chair became very popular, ultimately coveted by European royalty.
Several of the chairs could claim icon status. Featured are Classic examples of Knoll’s “Grasshopper Arm Chair” (1946,) by Eero Saarinen, Herman Miller’s “Lounge Chair (wood)“ by husband and wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames.
One of the most successful and iconic chair designs ever produced can be seen in Herman Miller’s MAF Chair” (ca. 1965), designedby midcentury design legends George Nelson and Charles R. Pollock. This chair, maybe better known as the Swag Leg Armchair, was more of a testament to leg design and engineering that to anything having to do with the Fiberglas seat for which it is so recognizable.
There are however quite a few that seem to have been the epitome of their kind, never to be copied or mass produced. The range of materials used in the creation of something as utilitarian as a chair is quite interesting.
From rattan and wicker (yes, there is a difference) to aluminum and steel, to plastic and rubber, cardboard and Masonite. Frank Gehry, who is represented a second time by his infamous 1971 “High Stool,” developed an entire line of cardboard and Masonite chairs that almost redefined the functional precepts of sitting.
As difficult as it is to pick a star, do not miss Herbert von Thaden’s “Adjustable Lounge Chair” (1947).Originallyan aircraft designer and aviator, he developed and patented a system for bending thin sheets of plywood, which ultimately led to his furniture business.
Although they probably could be promoted more earnestly, there are two interesting companion shows in the lower level community gallery of the main Memorial Building that should not be missed. These two displays, Chair Prototypes: A Partnershipand Tiny Treasures are results of collaborations between Joslyn and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Chair Prototypes is an interesting display of design drawings, research and actual models of chairs resulting from a class inspired by the 200 Years of Seatingexhibit. The results illustrate the importance of planning and research in the design process.
Tiny Treasuresis a diminutive exhibit of diminutive, highly detailed chairs assembled from the larger Kruger Collection housed at UNL. The set designers did quite a good job assembling a display that does not directly mimic, but still complements the larger show.
A final note: Kudos to those responsible for the placards at each station; they should be commended for the “extra” cultural tidbits provided with each chair. This gives added context to each design, to the materials and fabrication. It is sometimes easy to forget, especially in a museum setting, how the decorative arts and utilitarian crafts are so reliant on the availability and access of materials and manufacturing processes, and how much design has in common with social and cultural trends.
The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design, and the companion exhibits, are currently on display at Joslyn Art Museum. The exhibit is open during regular Museum hours, and it runs through September 8th. Please note that all visitors must obtain a ticket for entry to this exhibit. Admission to the museum is free, but for The Art of Seating exhibit various prices apply for non-members, and member access is free. Go to joslyn.orgor call for further information.