Published: May 15, 2012
Among the earliest forms of furniture is seating, used initially to provide a platform for an elevated personage. Over the centuries chairs, benches, stools and other seating pieces came into common use by lesser mortals. The exhibit “The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design” on view at the Columbia Museum of Art explores the evolution of the peculiarly American idiom.
Forty-four seats on view in the exhibit represent the development of seating furniture over the last two centuries, touching on the important movements in American design.
The chairs are drawn from the collection of Diane DeMell Jacobsen, who gathered with an eye toward the domestic and international influences on American chair design. For this collector, her chairs are more sculptural objects than simply utilitarian or decorative pieces. They are simply works of art; that they have a utilitarian function is secondary. The collection offers an interesting perspective on the evolution and influences of American furniture design over the course of 200 years. It affords a view of the historical and stylistic transitions from the handmade to mechanical and industrial manufacture and the introduction of technology in the way of construction and materials.
Jacobsen’s first acquisition, made in the early 2000s, was an Egyptian Revival ebonized cherry side chair from about 1875. The style came into fashion after the 1798‱801 Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt, the genesis of the subsequent emergence of Egyptology across Europe. The chair, attributed to New York City’s Pottier and Stymus Manufacturing Company, incorporates most of the Egyptian design elements popular at the time, including the sphinx and star carved on the back.
The earliest chair in Jacobsen’s collection is an 1810 doll’s ladder back example with two slats, a rush seat and in a dark green paint with floral elements. It is thought to have been made in Maine and reflects the honest labor of a country craftsman.
A Shaker maple ladder back rocker, circa 1840, was made at New Lebanon, N.Y., with tapered oval finials, four slats and a tape seat. It was made for use in the community, often by the elderly or infirm, and is another example of the form that has been popular since colonial days. The Shakers made simple ladder back rockers in quantity to sell to the outside world in the late Nineteenth Century.
A fancy chair, attributed to a Philadelphia maker, circa 1820, with a rush seat, ring turnings and a large anthemion splat, was painted and stenciled with leaves and rosettes. It draws on design elements of Egypt, Rome and Greece as interpreted by Sheraton and modified further by the unidentified maker.
One chair on view is a mélange of styles and influences: the centripetal spring armchair incorporates rococo, Gothic and Renaissance Revival. Its centripetal spring is a technological innovation, an early product of the Industrial Revolution, made of cast iron and steel, casters, a head support and a rotating seat, to allow it to swivel 360 degrees. It was designed by Thomas E. Warren, who was awarded the patent for the centripetal spring in 1849, and made around 1850 by the American Chair Company in Troy, N.Y. The chair was upholstered lushly, usually in brocade and often with lavish fringe to cover its iron and steel underpinnings. The effect is that of a chair in disguise or a firmly corseted dowager. The upholstery of the example on view is restrained and its back side is faced with rosewood veneer. Warren modified the patent, later incorporating the centripetal spring into railway passenger bench seats, giving them greater stability and comfort.
John Henry Belter, who arrived in New York City from his native Stuttgart, Germany, in 1833, was another whose work spanned the arc from the handmade to the production line. He was awarded several patents: the first in 1847 for a jigsaw for cutting through the laminated backs of his chairs; the second for his bedstead that could be disassembled easily in the event of fire; and a third for steam-bending cross-laminate wood. Belter’s circa 1855 rosewood slipper chair on view is pierced elaborately and carved with grapes and vines entwined with oak leaves and acorns, demonstrating his skills and innovations.
Exhibition curator Brian J. Lang, who is curator of decorative arts at the Columbia Museum of Art and who advised Jacobsen on some of her collection, explains that slipper chairs were low, enabling a lady of the period wearing a hoop skirt to sit while she put on her slippers. A second example made of carved laminated rosewood and oak with the original silk damask seat cover is dainty, yet it serves the purpose.
Lang, asked what he would like museum visitors to take away from the exhibit, says he hopes they will gain an appreciation of the rich variety of American chair design. The chairs demonstrate a unique American aesthetic at the same time they reveal how European styles influenced that style.
The period after the Civil War saw a revival of prosperity in which vast fortunes were made. It gave rise to the Gilded Age in which the opulent creations of the Herter Brothers, Gustav and Christian, held sway. A splendid side chair designed by Christian Herter and made at Herter Brothers around 1880 is of carved and ebonized cherry with gilding and a careful reproduction of a Herter silk lampas seat cover. As was the pattern with the Herters, the chair’s form is essentially a simple one, but with ornamentation drawn from the Romanesque, Japanese and Gothic with some pronounced Moorish detail.
A historical chair from 1857 is the House of Representatives oak armchair designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the Capitol from 1851 to 1865. Its design is essentially sturdy Renaissance Revival: the crest is carved with the shield with stars and stripes, signifying unity; the frame is carved with oak branches and acorns to indicate longevity; there are also acanthus leaves and rosettes. The chair came outfitted with a slipcover of horsehair for summertime usage; red goatskin upholstered seats warmed the honorable bottoms in colder weather. Half of the 262 chairs made for the politicians were made by Bembé and Kimbel of New York and half by the Desk Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia.
The Arts and Crafts movement supplanted the elaborate fancies of the Victorian in the work of such makers as Gustav Stickley. An oxbow armchair chair on view designed by David Robertson Smith for Stickley Brothers exemplifies the clean lines, the visible joinery and sturdy forms of the movement. Lang points to similarities between this chair and Chinese horseshoe back chairs, citing an influence, but not a copy. A Charles P. Limbert plank back chair, circa 1905, in fumed oak, leather and brass, is another example of the simple forms of the Arts and Crafts movement.
After World Wars I and II, advances in material and techniques led to the use of tubular metal, plastic and fiberglass and laminates in stark and as well as playful furniture forms.
Between the wars, Warren McArthur Jr capitalized on new technology with the sling seat lounge chair, circa 1935, made with an outer tube of anodized aluminum and strengthened by an inner rod of steel.
Frank Lloyd Wright used enameled tubular steel and brass in his Johnson Wax chair, circa 1938, for Steelcase. The office chairs were part of his overall design of the S.C. Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wis. The example on view was made with four legs, although the maker preferred three, an innovation that was not altogether successful.
In the 1980s, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown designed a series of laminated wood chairs with a plastic laminate finish. The chairs were based on the Queen Anne, Chippendale, Sheraton, Empire and Art Deco styles.
The most recent piece on view, Laurie Beckerman’s 2010 ionic bench in Baltic birch plywood laminate for Heritage Woodshop, takes its form directly from the volute of the mid-Sixth Century BC ionic column. Its construction harkens back to Belter and his method of steam-bending.
In tandem with “The Art of Seating,” the Columbia Museum has mounted “The Columbia Design League Selects: Modern Design from the Collection.” The exhibit focuses on Twentieth Century Design, showcasing 60-some objects from the museum’s own collection. Seating, tables and lamps and such related decorative arts as sculpture, industrial design, ceramics, glass and metal were selected by members of the museum’s Columbia Design League (CDL.) The CDL is a philanthropic arm of the museum dedicated to promoting design excellence and the understanding of design’s impact on the greater community. Members are drawn from the museum membership.
Reflecting the museum’s substantial collection of studio glass, selected pieces by such artists as Ken Carder, Stephen Dee Edwards and Giampaolo Seguso are on view. A nod to Frank Lloyd Wright is his clerestory window panel, circa 1940, made for the Auldbrass Plantation in Yemassee, S.C.
A handled vase by Mary A. Jackson was made with local materials †sweetgrass, pine needles and palmetto. There is also a Harry Bertoia bronze bush sculpture, Fiesta ware by Frederick Hurten Rhead and a Tulip side table and armchair in weighted cast aluminum by Eero Saarinen. A molded plastic chair by Charles Eames resonates with the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) on view in the Jacobsen collection.
“The Art of Seating: Two Hundred Years of American Design” was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Fla., in collaboration with the Jacobsen Collection of American Art. It remains on view through August 26 and then travels to Easton, Md., where it goes on view at the Academy Art Museum November 29.
The Columbia Museum of Art is at 1515 Main Street. For information, 803-799-2810 or www.columbiamuseum.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm