Get our newsletters

Happy to Be Here: Furniture in focus

Most definitions of “chair” describe a seat as typically having four legs and a back.

But can a group of chairs be “art.” And does it have to have legs?

The Michener Art Museum certainly thinks chairs can be art and knows that legs are not necessary. It has mounted an exhibition that is touring the country – “The Art of Seating: Two Hundred years of American Design.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes art as “expression or application of human creative skill and imagination ... producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

But prosaic, everyday chairs? Beauty? Some in the exhibition are beautiful but others are strange, even ugly, and yet they are art if one sees the historical trends and considers that they reflect a maker who is pushing established boundaries, trying something new, experimenting with wood, metal and fabrics to create a model that influences a trend.

“The Art of Seating” comprises selections from the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen Ph.D. Foundation Collection of American Art. The creation of the chair collection began with the purchase of an Egyptian Revival side chair, which grew into the 40 chairs displayed at the Michener. It was assembled by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Fla. (MOCA), a visual arts resource of the University of North Florida.

Ben Thompson, MOCA deputy director, curated the exhibition. With Kathleen Jameson, Michener executive director, he led a press tour of the show on the eve of its opening.

The display is divided into periods, Thompson explained. Standing out in the period 1820 to 1880, is the simplicity of a Shaker rocking chair contrasted with the ornate Centripetal Spring Arm Chair made in Troy, N.Y., which turns and rocks in many directions.

There’s a turning point with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Chairs by David Wolcott Kendall and Gustav Stickley demonstrate the emphasis on high quality materials and utility. It was a time when artists believed in the ability of art to shape society – the theory is reflected in architecture and furnishings, chairs included.

The design world exploded in the 1930s. Then, until 1960, everything changed and chairs were part of the change. An almost quaint Frank Lloyd Wright chair designed for the revolutionary Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisc., is in the exhibition along with chairs by Charles and Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia, distinguished by their streamlined designs.

There’s a cardboard stool by Frank Gehry, one of his “wiggle” designs, its corrugations outlining the flowing material, and the plywood Adjustable Lounge Chair by Herbert von Thaden, made by the Thaden Jordan Furniture Company of Roanoke, Va., in 1947.

The final group shows contemporary designs like Vivian Beer;s sinuous blue metal chair made in Penland, N.C., and the Synergistic Synthesis lounge chair designed by Kenneth Smythe of Oakland, Calif., in 2003. It’s not a down-home American country-style chair, the kind favored still by a major part of the population, but a colorful, mechanical object, almost like a Lego design.

That’s one of chairs that pushes the boundaries of art.

A lecture series accompanies the Art of Seating exhibition. Curator Ben Thompson gave the opening lecture Feb. 9.

Diane Jacobsen, will describe her collection of more than 250 works of art at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 2. With her collection, she stresses the formation of the national character i the history of American art.

Mark Sfirri, Bucks County woodworker and college professor, will speak about the process of designing and engineering comfortable, structurally sound and attractive chairs at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 9.

Celia Bertoia, youngest daughter of Harry Bertoia, will present a look at the life and legacy of her father, known best for his designs in metal, at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 23.

William Perthes of the Barnes Foundation will talk about transforming chairs from functional objects to works of art from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11. And a group of films on Thursday evenings in April complement the exhibition.

A complementary exhibition

To go along with “The Art of Seasting,” this weekend the Michener will open the exhibition “Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture from the Permanent Collection.”

“Presenting two such remarkable exhibitions simultaneously gives the Michener a dynamic platform from which to explore – and expand upon – the role that Bucks County holds in the history of American design,” said Jameson, “The early 1900s were pivitol in establishing this region as one of the cultural hubs of the studio craft movement; craftspeople like Frederick Harer, George Nakashima, Paul Evans and Philip Lloyd Powell brought international attention to the work being produced here.

“Nakashima Looks” she said, will enhance the history on display in “The Art of Seating.”

Dr. Jameson and Mira Nakashima will celebrate the importance of art and craft as a way to a better life in a lecture at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 5.
Register for lectures at

Join our readers whose generous donations are making it possible for you to read our news coverage. Help keep local journalism alive and our community strong. Donate today.