I didn’t want to lose this article. When I discovered it, all photos had disappeared already. So I post it as WIP (Work in Progress). From time to time I will be adding stuff to it
ART OF THE CHAIR: SONOMA VALLEY MUSEUM OF ART EXHIBIT TRACES THE EVOLUTION OF THIS MOST ESSENTIAL PIECE OF FURNITURE
Published on June 4, 2005
© 2005- The Press Democrat
Centuries before the Learjet, it was the symbol of social importance — a perquisite reserved only for the rich and powerful.
It’s hard to conceive that the common chair, however curious or absurdly uncomfortable in retrospect, was a luxury available exclusively to the ruling class.
Now every man can have his own throne, be it an ergonomically designed executive chair for the home office complete with lumbar support and forward tilt control, or a cushy recliner with pillow back and padded arms equipped with a cupholder and remote control slot.
The chair has come a long way in both design and utility from the earliest known seats — backless stools depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs — to the ultracool, climate-controlled, form-fitting armchair sofas of designer Hirohiko Kamiya that are closer to a puffy caterpillar than a classic Chippendale side chair.
“The Art of the Chair,” a new exhibit opening today at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, traces the evolution of this most essential piece of furniture — an object that, because of its portability, served as a bellwether of design trends for millennia.
“Chairs are among our most utilitarian objects of daily use, but can also be magnificent works of art,” said Lee Hunt Miller, curator for the exhibit of 23 masterpieces of seating design.
“Limited in size and shape by the need to accommodate the human body, chairs have nevertheless exhibited through history a great variety of artistic expressions, all suggestive of the manners and tastes of their times,” Miller said. “This show will demonstrate just how varied and imaginative chair design can be.”
The show is an eclectic mix of seating, everything from chairs that fold to chairs that stack, and incorporating every conceivable and even some inconceivable materials, including the corrugated cardboard that makes up uber architect Frank Gehry’s playful “Slice Chair,” capable of supporting the weight of a man.
Miller, who for 29 years was curator of decorative arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said specialists in her field have long been intrigued in particular by chairs because of the major role they played in the transmission of style.
Being more portable than other furnishings, they easily made their way around the globe, introducing the design innovations and ideas of one culture to another.
“If you saw something in Italy when you were on the Grand Tour and came home and wanted something reminiscent of it, a chair would cost a lot less and could be made a lot sooner” than larger pieces of furniture, she said.
“Chairs were early transmitters of stylistic change and have always engaged those of us interested in decorative arts and furniture. And in the hierarchy of decorative arts, furniture is at the top.”
Most of the chairs featured in the exhibit didn’t travel far, however. Most are part of the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — The Legion of Honor and the de Young (slated to reopen in October). A Ming Dynasty chair is on loan from the Asian Art Museum.
A few have been tapped from private collections in the Bay Area from luminaries like Gordon Getty and Rob Forbes of Design Within Reach, a national retailer specializing in modern furnishings. And several have been snatched straight from the Sonoma home of architects Stanley Abercrombie and Paul Vieyra.
In fact, it is a small personal sacrifice for the pair. Abercrombie, who designed the exhibit, is militantly committed to the double cantilevered Marcel Breuer chair he has donated to the cause.
It and its identical twin have a place of honor in his living room, mindful of the two years Abercrombie — who went on to a distinguished career as a design writer and was editor-in-chief of Interior Design Magazine — spent working as a draftsman for the famed architect in New York in the early 1960s.
It was Breuer who made the first chair of tubular steel in 1925. The comfortably springy cantilevered chair that he introduced three years later also is supported by tubular steel. Abercrombie finds it both easy on the eyes and on the back.
“It’s a bit of nostalgia,” he conceded of the wicker seated chair that makes up part of the everyday furnishings of his home.
“I like Breuer as a person. He taught at the Bauhaus (an avant-garde art and design school founded in Germany in 1919). When I went to work for him he was no longer teaching but was very much a teacher. When he came to your desk, he wouldn’t just say `Do it this way.’ He’d say, `Don’t you think we perhaps might do it this way because …?”’
Abercrombie also has donated to the exhibit a century-old Thonet chair, a rounded chair of bent wood made in a technique developed in the 19th century by Michael Thonet. The German craftsman developed a process for steaming wood to create what came to be known as “bentwood” furniture, at once inexpensive, practical and refined.
Abercrombie’s Thonet chair now occupies a notable corner in his bedroom, in a house where every wall, it seems, is either glass or bookshelves. The Swiss-French architect and designer Charles [*** HIBIT c9 ***]douard Jeanneret Le Corbusier made the same chair famous by using it in many of his renowned interiors.
“He called it a chair with `nobility,”’ said Abercrombie, a modernist in his own tastes who has authored many books including the recent “Century of Interior Design: The Design, the Designers, the Products, and the Profession 1900-2000.”
At least half of the featured chairs are 20th century, like a reproduction of the languorous chaise lounge that was designed by Le Corbusier in 1928 and the Eames lounge chair and ottoman by Ray and Charles Eames that became an icon of mid-century furniture design and is still produced today. Also included is an upright dining chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Hanna House in Palo Alto.
To appreciate the radical shift in design of the 20th century however, one must look backward. The exhibit features a number of antique chairs that represent seminal points in the evolution of design.
There is a circa 1680 English William and Mary side chair of beechwood and cane with elaborately carved stiles on the back. Structurally the seat is so upright as to appear oppressive to the poor user; an airline seat would be comfy by comparison.
Queene Anne chair
Far more inventive is a rounded Queen Anne chair from about 1725, outfitted with moveable arms — one for writing and one to hold a candle.
“It saved you having to sit by a window or by a table that could hold a candle,” Abercrombie said.
The plain functionality of that chair stands in contrast to the grandeur of a French Regence armchair, also in the exhibit and from about the same time period. Its former gilt finish is worn, but the Aubusson tapestry upholstery is there to be admired.
And no discussion of the history of seating would be complete without a Chippendale. Thomas Chippendale, the 18th century English cabinetmaker, influenced a world of furniture design with the publication of a seminal book, “Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director” featuring fashionable English furniture design.
Hunt has brought in a circa 1750-60 Chippendale settee and matching sidechair of mahogany and silk damask, typical of English country house furniture.
“If you think about the chair as a solution to a simple problem of how to hold up the human body in a comfortable way, every chair is a solution to that same problem,” Abercrombie marveled, “and yet they all are so amazingly different.”
PHOTO: 2 by Sonoma Valley Museum of Art
4 by Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat
3 by CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
1: A William and Mary chair from the 17th century, made of beechwood and cane.
2: This 1905 Princess Sitamun’s Chair is a reproduction from a 1400 B.C. chair from 18th dynasty Egypt, made of redwood, gilded plaster and woven rush.
3: Regence armchair, circa 1720, upholstered with Aubusson tapestry depicting scenes from Aesop’s Fables.
4: A Thonet bentwood chair owned by Sonoma resident Stan Abercrombie.
5: A chair from the Chinese Ming Dynasty period from 1369-1644.
6: A George I reading chair with candle holder, circa 1725, made from Virginia walnut.
7: Pete Herrera moves the “Slice” chair, made of corrugated cardboard into position next to the “Wiggle ” chair and stool, made of corrugated cardboard and masonite, at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. The chairs were made by famed architect Frank Gehry and are from L.J. Cella’s collection.
8: This lounge chair and ottoman by husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames is a match to one that will be a part of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art exhibit.
9: This 1928 chrome and wicker chair by Marcel Breuer, part of the exhibit, is from the collection of Sonoma architect Stan Abercrombie.
Why quote a whole article? Because it contains some observations I like and some references I Like to flesh out more in the future.