Published: October 28, 2003
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) presents “The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940 to 1990,” organized by the MFA in collaboration with The Furniture Society, which documents, for the first time, the beginnings and evolution of the American studio furniture movement – one of the most important aspects of Twentieth Century furniture.
On view in the MFA’s Torf Gallery from November 12 through February 8, 2004, “The Maker’s Hand” features more than 50 extraordinary objects, including seating, tables, chests and cabinets by renowned North American furniture makers, such as Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima and Sam Maloof. Drawn entirely from public and private collections around the United States, these objects will showcase the innovative techniques and expressive styles created by these artists.
“The Maker’s Hand” offers a historical exploration and analysis of the American studio furniture movement highlighting the major figures and trends, as well as some of the objects that have influenced the direction of the field over several generations. The exhibition is organized chronologically by decade, each characterized by a dominant theme – a reverence for wood in the 1940s and 1950s; challenged by an emphasis on the artistic qualities of furniture in the 1960s; an interest in various techniques in the 1970s; and an increasing professionalism of the craft in the 1980s.
“The Maker’s Hand” is curated by Gerald W.R. Ward, Katharine Lane Weems senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture, art of the Americas at the MFA, and Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Charles F. Montgomery professor of American decorative arts at Yale University.
“‘The Maker’s Hand’ is a cutting-edge exhibition that illustrates an entire art movement – one of great importance in the Twentieth Century,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund director of the MFA. “We hope our visitors will take this opportunity to experience these modern objects culled from both the MFA’s collection and from museum friends who have lent pieces from their private homes.”
The exhibition begins with artists such as Esherick, Nakashima, Maloof, Tage Frid and Walker Weed, who were instrumental in the studio furniture movement. Their “reverence for wood,” demonstrated through the natural look of their furniture, represented much of the furniture being created in the 1940s and 1950s.
Esherick, the acknowledged founder of the movement, was responsible for bringing studio furniture to a wider audience. Esherick came to fame when he worked on the design and installation of “Pennsylvania Hill House,” one of the prototype interiors created for the “America at Home” display for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair conducted in New York City. On view in “The Maker’s Hand” are Esherick’s asymmetrical table with a phenol fiber top and the accompanying chairs, which were featured in the “Pennsylvania Hill House” installation at the World’s Fair.
One of the most recognized makers today is Maloof, who also played a significant role in the early years of the movement. The exhibition features four works by Maloof, including a large cradle-cabinet, 1968, thought to be his most unusual design, and his spindle back walnut rocking chair, 1975. The rocker is part of a dozen pieces by Maloof commissioned by the MFA for its innovative “Pleased Be Seated!” program of gallery seating.
“‘The Maker’s Hand’ presents a wide range of works by some of the most talented studio furniture makers, while putting them in the context of the movement itself,” said Ward.
The exhibition moves into the experimental 1960s when furniture makers broke with the traditions of the earlier generations and began exploring new forms, techniques and materials. This shift was a direct result of American society in the 1960s, specifically the introduction of Pop Art. Pop Art furniture was meant to be fun, making use of synthetic materials and bright colors. On view in “The Maker’s Hand” is Tommy Simpson’s “Cabinet: Man Balancing a Feather on his Knows” 1968, which reflects the true spirit of the 1960s with its fanciful shape and bright colors.
Other artists featured in the exhibition that represent the mood of the 1960s include Arthur Espenet Carpenter, Wendell Castle and Donald Lloyd McKinley. Carpenter based his work on five criteria – function, durability, simplicity, sensuality and practicality of construction. On view in “The Maker’s Hand” is his rolltop desk, 1970, a recent acquisition for the MFA, which is a particularly strong example of the criteria from which he worked. Wendell Castle’s enormous walnut library sculpture, 1965, and Donald Lloyd McKinley’s swivel-arm double lamp with clustered table base, 1969. also featured in the exhibition, are excellent examples of the innovative designs and techniques that furniture makers of the 1960s were developing.
With the 1970s came another shift from organic personal exploration toward technical finesse and a refined finish. Bending – either through steaming wood to increase flexibility or through laminating and gluing thin, flexible strips of wood – became one of the defining techniques of the 1970s. “The Maker’s Hand” features Bruce Beeken’s tea cart, 1981, which demonstrates the use of both of these bending techniques. The diversity of wood types used by furniture makers was also expanded in the 1970s to include exotic woods such as padouk, bubinga, rosewood, cocobolo and zebrawood.
The School for American Craftsman at the Rochester Institute of Technology may be credited with emphasizing a high standard of technical performance in its curriculum. Teaching there from 1948 to 1962, was furniture maker Tage Frid. His teaching in the late 1950s and early 1960s profoundly shaped the next generation of makers, including Daniel Jackson, Jere Osgood and William Keyser. “The Maker’s Hand” features Jackson’s “Looking glass: Leda, the Devil, and the Moon,” 1973, Osgood’s chest of drawers, 1969, and Keyser’s coffee table, 1978.
With the 1980s came the professionalization of studio furniture making, which led to the emergence of new markets. Studio furniture was previously commissioned for a specific purpose, but in the 1980s, young professionals began to collect studio furniture. The surge of interest in buying and collecting helped fuel the work of first-generation artists such as Maloof, as well as emerging young makers. Women artists also came to prominence in the 1980s. “The Maker’s Hand” features inventive furniture by women, including Wendy Maruyama’s Mickey Mackintosh chair, 1982, and Judy Kensley McKie’s Chase tablen, 1987, and leopard chest, 1989.
“The Maker’s Hand” builds on the MFA’s 1989 furniture show “New American Furniture,” devoted to contemporary furniture by second-generation studio furniture makers who emerged in the 1970s, such as John Cederquist’s puzzlelike dresser “Le Fleuron Manquant,” 1989, also on view in “The Maker’s Hand.”
“The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990” will be accompanied by a 160-page book with 100 color and 50 black and white images highlighting furniture by Castle, Maloof, Mary Gregory, John Cederquist, McKie and many other artisans. Written by Cooke, Ward and Kelly H. L’Ecuyer, with the assistance of Pat Warner, this book is one of the first, and to date the most authoritative, publications about the studio furniture movement featuring extensive biographies of more than 40 furniture makers. Published by the MFA, this book will be available in the museum bookstore and shop, online at www.mfa.org or by calling 617-369-4367. Hardcover, $60 and softcover, $35.
Also in conjunction with “The Maker’s Hand,” the MFA is hosting a symposium on Saturday, January 17, from 9 am to 5 pm, in Remis Auditorium. Contemporary furniture makers featured in “The Maker’s Hand” will discuss the evolution of the studio furniture movement, including its major trends and influential makers; issues of craftsmanship and self-expression; and the professionalization of the field.
Registration is $15 for MFA members, seniors and students and $25 for the general public. To register, contact Kelly L’Ecuyer, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115; 617-369-3270; email: email@example.com.
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