In the domestic dynamic of everyday living, America’s chair lust continues.
A couple from Washington drives down to Richmond on a sunny weekday morning for a double chair whammy. Unable to find what they were seeking, they’re here to pick up a chair at LaDiff and take in “The Art of Seating,” a traveling exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society that showcases resting places for your backside as artistry.
This survey of exceptional American design from the early 19th century to now offers distinctive proof that a chair is experienced not only as a functional item, but also as art. The show features 44 chairs chosen for their beauty and historical context, drawing a line through the important social, economic, political and cultural influences that determined where well-heeled Americans took a load off.
“This exhibit is really a 200-year survey of American life,” lead curator Bill Rasmussen says. “When you look around here, these chairs are clearly American, but what’s American about them? What were Americans interested in?”
How about classical style, a federal seal on the top of the seat back and stars on the seat rails, all elements of an 1857 House of Representatives chamber arm chair designed by U.S. Capitol architect Thomas U. Walter. To the contemporary eye, the chair looks positively thronelike.
During the Victorian era, the new nation was interested in patenting furniture ideas using new materials and construction techniques. An elaborate centripetal spring arm chair boasts lacey, openwork rococo cast iron and red burnt velvet upholstery — but its ability to roll, swivel and bend is what tickled the Victorian sensibility, allowing the sitter to shift position and the chair to move about.
Referring to the disappearing Western frontier, Wenzel Fredrich’s 1890 longhorn chair recycled discarded steer horns from a nearby slaughterhouse for armrests and combined them with fine blue satin and Tiffany glass ball casters for a contrast of materials that had notables such as Queen Victoria, Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm ordering the striking-looking chairs.
In 1924, America’s Navy was interested in indestructible seating when it commissioned a chair that could withstand use on a warship, including being torpedoed. But the real challenge was that it had to stand up to sailors. The sleek design of the brushed aluminum chair required a two-week, 77-step process involving 12 parts being welded together and then ground to create a seamless, one-piece look. Today, the chair is as familiar-looking as a Burger King. At some you can sit on such chairs.
One of a few women designers in a male-dominated field, as well as in this show, was Greta Magnusson Grossman. Her molded fiberglass chair from 1950 is eye-catching for the natural motifs of leaf patterns worked into the fiberglass. The chair owes its elegance to petite proportions and asymmetrical lines, or as Rasmussen says, “It’s a perfect mix of Swedish modern and California cool.”
The exhibit moves chronologically from old to new, and brilliant pops of color greet you when entering the late-20th-century gallery, which includes pieces such as Harry Bertola’s diamond lounge chair from 1952. The seat uses bright blue fabric over a grid of industrial wire rod. It’s a durable, comfortable chair that continues to look stylish and inviting six decades later.
“The Virginia Museum was filled with these chairs back in the ’50s and ’60s,” Rasmussen recalls. “They’re still in the members’ lounge because they’ve stood the test of time. Otherwise, they’d have been tossed by now.”
If a chair’s only function was to provide a place to sit, it would be a very mundane world.
From the simplicity of an early Shaker rocking chair to Robert Venturi’s playful 1984 Sheraton chair, with its post-modernist design and purely decorative elements referring to late-18th-century neo-classical style, America’s history can be reflected by where we sat. S
“The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design” runs through April 17 at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard. Information at 358-4901 or vahistorical.org.