Take a seat for this one: the Columbia Museum of Art’s next exhibition is about chairs.
What’s a chair good for besides sitting in it?
“Initially, I may not have viewed chairs as masterpieces of art,” Diane Jacobsen, a respected art collector, responded. Once you recognize that they are 3-D sculptures that you happen to sit in, you gain a different perspective.”
You see the craftsmanship, detail and innovation.
“You suddenly have a whole new appreciation,” Jacobsen said. “It took me many years. I think it wasn’t until I had some very professional guidance. There’s obviously a lot of chairs made.
“Not all of them are considered works of art.”
“The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design,” the museum’s summer exhibition, features 44 chairs from Jacobsen’s private collection. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Fla., the show contains work by well-known designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and Charles and Ray Eames. The exhibition contains designs by manufacturers such as Knoll, Herman Miller and Steelcase.
These old chairs aren’t in the same category as the ones with the wonky legs found in suburban kitchens. Think of these chairs like sculpture, like works of art. At least that’s what the museum is asking you to do.
“To really ask the visitor to look at something that we use every day, and perhaps take advantage of, and see it in a new light,” Brian Lang, the museum’s curator of decorative arts, said.
The exhibition delves deeper than furniture design, as two centuries of American history — travel, industrial advances and domesticity — is told through chairs.
“I wanted to tell the story of American design through chairs,” Jacobsen said. “I want the American public to embrace and really appreciate and maybe revere the tremendously rich cultural heritage that we have.”
Sitting in history class
The Shaker Chair, a rocking arm chair with a design that has been repeatedly fabricated, was developed by The Shakers, an 18th century religious sect that lived in isolated communities, much like the Amish do today. The chair, probably designed for a revered older member, has a simple design. It becomes art when one notices the craftsmanship and strength.
The Shakers, who settled communities primarily in the Northeast, migrated from England and were known for dancing, singing and speaking in tongues while worshipping God. They believed in celibacy, so new members were acquired through conversion and by adopting orphans. The Shakers, who are most remembered for their durable and functional furniture, invented the wheel washing machine, the clothes pin and the flat broom, items commonly used in today’s household.
All that was learned by studying a chair.
“It’s a way to take a look into history,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen’s history lessons began with day trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a youth. A love of art was implanted and her eye was exposed to masterpieces.
She and her husband, Thomas, who passed away from leukemia, collected American art. Thomas wanted his legacy cemented through art.
“What he wanted was for me to create a gallery dedicated to American art in his name at an art museum,” Jacobsen said.
The Thomas H. and Diane D. Jacobsen Collection of American Art includes paintings, sculpture, ceramics, glass, silver and furniture. The Jacobsens began collecting long before Thomas’ death in 2002.
“She certainly has honored that legacy,” Lang said. “She has built a significant collection of American art.”
The chair collection didn’t begin until Jacobsen purchased an Egyptian Revival Side Chair in the early 2000s.
The chair rekindled memories of her personal history. While studying for a Ph.D in international affairs in the ‘90s, Jacobsen traveled to Egypt in the ’80s to interview members of The Society of the Muslim Brothers, commonly know as The Muslim Brotherhood. According to Jacobsen, the design of the ebonized chair, made between 1870-72, was influenced by many factors, from Napoleon III’s 18th century campaign in Egypt to the 1860s when the Suez Canal opened the country and its art to the world. Egyptian style was emulated here.
A slice of the American railroad’s story can be found in Thomas Warren’s Centripetal Spring Arm Chair. Warren’s spring system was first designed for a bench to absorb a train ride’s frequent bumps.
“The passengers liked the system so much they wanted some for their homes,” said Jacobsen, who added that time zones were created so train operators could keep schedules. “Every chair has a little bit of a story to tell about how America evolved. And that’s so exciting to me.”
There’s plenty to digest. John Henry Belter, a German-born cabinet manufacturer, also made furniture. A number of his 19th century chairs, usually made of carved rosewood and oak, featured scroll and floral motifs on the backs similar to the exhibition’s Slipper Chair. Belter’s furniture-making process, though, outshines his art because he pioneered a way to carve laminated wood without sacrificing the piece’s strength. Belter received several patents for his innovations, as did many other European-born designers and engineers who emigrated because the patent rules were less cumbersome here than in other countries.
“For the price of $4 you can get a patent in the United States and you didn’t need to know anybody,” Jacobsen said. “This takes you into studying the U.S. patent system.”
Jacobsen has the provenance of the chairs researched all the way to the original upholstery and foundation. When she restores chairs, she wants to chair to look like it did when first manufactured.
“Chairs are the kind of thing that take a little bit of a beating,” she said. “I try not to do much in restoration, but everybody is sitting in these chairs.”
A seat for everyone
Vivian Beer’s 2004 Current chair, made from curvy welded steel, looks, from the side, more like a warped treble clef than a comfortable seat. But viewers will be drawn to it, nonetheless. Thomas Walter’s 19th century House of Representatives Chamber Arm Chair, made of carved oak and pine, has a stately charm accented by a finely detailed frame.
Jon Brooks veers even farther than Beer from traditional chair design. His 1970 Solid Elm Ball Chair resembles a split peach, leaving the chair’s function initially to question.
“The function is a given in that all of them are chairs,” Jacobsen said. “None of the chairs that we have are decorative. You’ll see some today that are just works of art.”
Ergonomics was integral to top designers.
“A lot of designers had people sit in a snow bank to see how the body fit,” Jacobsen said.
The chairs will be on platforms, a deterrent for people who actually want to sit in them. (The platforms in the museum’s permanent galleries haven’t stopped museumgoers from sitting in those chairs.) Jacobsen said men who attend the show are blown away.
Lang, who said he was interested in doing a show on Jacobsen’s chairs even before the show was conceived, made a bold prediction.
Sit up for this one: “I can pretty much assure anyone that when they go through the exhibition and leave it they will never look at a chair the same way again,” he said.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.