'The Art of Seating' examines design from bottom up
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Sunday, March 4, 2012
A chair is a chair is a chair, or so you would think. But the latest exhibit at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art proves otherwise.
Titled "The Art of Seating," this traveling exhibit, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Fla., features 43 chairs from the Dr. Diane Jacobsen American Chair Collection that span more than two centuries of industrial design in America.
"It shows the evolution of not only chair design, but design," says Barbara Jones, chief curator at the Westmoreland Museum. "It emulates architecture, and even some of the paintings and sculptures (in the museum's collection) when you look at some of these designs and the symbolisms that were really popular during these periods."
The exhibit begins with the most regal of chairs, a Chamber Arm Chair from the House of Representatives, dating to 1857. It was designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, who also happened to be the architect of the U.S. Capitol from 1851 to 1865.
This chair was designed in the Classical Style, having flower petal-like legs, deeply carved laurel leaves and guilloche borders comprised of intertwined ovals and circles.
So regal was the design that famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady photographed President Abraham Lincoln in a chair just like this one in 1863.
As old as this chair is, it's not the oldest in the exhibit. That would be a ladder-back doll's chair believed to have been created some time between 1800 and 1825. The tiniest chair in the exhibit, it is made of wood and rush and painted with floral designs.
Not far away is an innovative chair from the 1850s known as a "Centripetal Spring Arm Chair." Designed by Thomas E. Warren, who worked for the American Chair Co. from 1849 to '52, it is unique in this exhibit because it is the earliest example here of "patent furniture." Having a stationary seat and back assembly that floats above a base comprised of eight iron springs arranged radially from a center support post, it allows the sitter to move laterally and rotate in any combination of directions as well as vertically under their own weight. The springs for this chair were patented by Warren on Sept. 25, 1849. As beautiful as it is versatile, this chair reflects the Rococo Revival Movement, which was popular from the 1840s to the 1870s.
Like Warren, who was swept up with the patent craze of the American Industrial Revolution, George Hunzinger also was concerned with combining beautiful forms with practical function. Over the course of his long career, he was granted a total of 21 patents for furniture innovations.
Two chairs designed by Hunzinger display an overwhelming emphasis on the decorative, while simultaneously reflecting unique innovations in support -- diagonal cross bracing for strength. This is most obvious in his "Wire Seat Side Chair" designed in 1876. Made from thin straps of steel encased by a woven wool and cotton covering, it has a unique bracing system that strengthens the back of the chair while sitting.
Though Warren and Hunzinger's chairs are excellent examples of early manufactured chairs, two chairs in particular are unique for their use of repurposed materials.
Cyrus Wakefield's 1885 "Peacock Chair" is crafted from discarded rattan, a vine used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to secure packages. And Wenzel Friedrich's 1890 "Texas Longhorn Chair" has steer horns scavenged from the meatpacking industry that form its arms, legs and back. The upper horns are capped with ivory balls, while Tiffany glass balls are used in casters attached to the chair's legs, which also are horns.
Lovers of mid-20th-century modern design will no doubt take delight in the plethora of examples in the modernist milieu designed by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Isamu Noguchi and Harry Bertoia.
The earliest modern chair on display is the "Sling Seat Lounge Chair," which was designed by Warren McArthur Jr. around 1935. Having a canvas sling seat on a tubular aluminum frame, it is also the earliest example of a lounge chair in the exhibit.
And speaking of lounge chairs, also on display is the circa 1945 "LCW" (Lounge Chair Wood) designed by husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames.
Undoubtedly the most celebrated chair design of the 20th century, it is made of molded plywood that conforms to the body and appears to float by way of the mostly unseen rubber shock mounts underneath the seat.
Contemporary chairs include Vivian Beer's "Current Chair" created in 2004. Unusual in that it looks to have been created from one cut and bent piece of steel, it's worth noting for its economy of materials. As is the "Easy Edge High Stool" designed by architect Frank Gehry in 1971 that is made completely of corrugated cardboard.
These latter two examples show that designers are clearly not done with exploring the possibilities when it comes to creating chairs.Additional Information:
'The Art of Seating'
When: Through April 8. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; until 9 p.m. Fridays. The museum will be open during regular hours on Easter Sunday, April 8.
Admission: $5; free to children under 12
Where: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 North Main St., Greensburg
Details: 724-837-1500 or website
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