The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design

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Designed and Manufactured by Vivian Beer (b. 1977), Penland, NC: Current, 2004 © Photo by Douglas J. Eng
The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design

501 East 9th Street
72202 Little Rock
September 29th, 2017 - December 31st, 2017

501 372 4000
Tue-Sat 10-5; Sun 11-5 / Library Hours: Tue-Wed 10-3

This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Jacksonville, and is circulated by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C. 

For millennia humans have utilized chairs as a form of seating furniture. The oldest surviving chair is that of the ancient Egyptian princess, Sitamun, dating to approximately 1400 BCE (18th Dynasty), and now in the collection of the Cairo Museum. European immigrants to the New World in the seventeenth century brought chairs and a few other forms of furniture with them as they came to America. Once established, they began to make furniture domestically using those European examples as prototypes. It was not until the early nineteenth century, however, that Americans began to manufacture chairs largely free of European influence and in a distinctly American “style.”

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design contains more than forty exceptional examples of American chairs, and is the first comprehensive survey of American chairs to be shown at the Arkansas Arts Center. Hailing from the Jacobsen Collection of American Art in Jacksonville, Florida, the chairs in the exhibition document the rich and varied evolution of American design, illustrate the emergence of new technologies and materials employed in their manufacture, reflect changes in consumer preferences and taste, as well as illustrate social and cultural developments. Designed for function, each of these sculptural works of art possesses a unique story, revealing as much about its own creation as it does our collective national identity.

The earliest chairs in the exhibition, both dating to the first half of the 19th century, are a diminutive Ladderback Doll’s Chair and a similarly styled Rocking Arm Chair designed and made by a Shaker adherent for use in the religious community in New Lebanon, New York. Made of locally procured woods, the chairs reflect a nascent American consciousness which had been widely promoted by the Founding Fathers, who encouraged and stressed the importance of forging a national identity in part through the domestic manufacture of finely crafted goods using native materials and technologies.

The balance of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid growth and profound change for the fledgling Republic. In the decorative arts, particularly furniture, the classical influence of ancient Greece and Rome—popular in the first quarter of the century—gradually gave way to revival styles of past eras, such as the Gothic Revival and Rococo Revival. These revival styles influenced the design and manufacture of seating furniture, which by this time was being made en mass in factories. These factories employed new technologies and materials in their manufacture, such as the use of steam-bent and laminated woods as seen in the exuberantly carved chairs by John Henry Belter.

Made nearly a century later, Charles and Ray Eames’s LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) (c. 1954) is more similar than different to Belter’s Slipper Chair, through their use of laminated and molded woods. Hailed by Time Magazine as the “Chair of the Century,” the LCW was praised for its compact and lightweight design, which appealed to the Baby Boom generation of mid-twentieth century Americans who were looking to outfit their homes and businesses with inexpensive, yet stylish, furnishings.

In contrast to the mass production of the LCW—which is still being produced today by the Herman Miller Furniture Company, a testament to its timeless design—Vivian Beer’s sinuous and sensuous chair, Current (2004), continues the tradition and spirit of the American studio furniture movement, which peaked around 1960, yet remains vibrant today. Its early proponents—Sam Maloof, Wendell Castle, and Jon Brooks, among others—favored the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship by hand over the those made through mass production. Beer’s Current pushes the ever-shifting boundary between craft and design, and of utility and a sculptural work of art. About Current, Beer said, “I wanted this chair to seem as if it had been cut and crushed out of a single sheet of metal. At the same time I wanted it to feel as fast and clean as water in its silhouette with the power of an implied brutal forming in the background. The balance and the trickery are important.”

Through the more than forty chairs in the exhibitions, visitors will learn not only the unique history of each chair, but how they reflect the broader historical, social, economic, political and cultural context in which they were created.

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