Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Exhibit Highlights Aesthetic & Technological Changes

CHAIRS: 125 Years of Design

"A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.
That is why Chippendale is famous."

--Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Tulane University’s Southeastern Architectural Archive (SEAA) has launched a new exhibition.

CHAIRS: 125 Years of Design illustrates the profound aesthetic, cultural, societal and technological changes that have impacted modern chair design. Highlights include seating furniture by A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), James Lamantia (1923-), and Curtis & Davis (active 1947-1978).

It has been said that few objects embody modern design as eloquently as the chair. The SEAA exhibition provides an expansive array of chairs and other seating forms dating from 1835 to 1960, from British architect/designer A.W.N. Pugin’s delicate etchings of Gothic-inspired seating to the New Orleans Curtis & Davis firm’s high modern sacristy furniture.

Architects first began designing furniture for their buildings in the seventeenth century. The Scottish-born architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) expanded his practice to devise furnishings and other household objects befitting his interiors. Similarly, American architect Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) designed neoclassical residences along with the case furniture and chairs to match.

Massachusetts furniture makers such as John Ainsworth Dunn and the Heywood Brothers shifted production from artisanship to factory assembly. The New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884-1885) revealed a growing assortment of manufactured American and European furniture: Charles Fitch Company’s rosewood and mahogany bureaus & tables, Heywood Brothers’ rattan & reed chairs, Friedrich Wenzel’s Texas Longhorn chairs, and Thonet’s Austrian bentwood seating. New Orleans architect Thomas Sully (1855-1939) decorated both home and office with such accoutrements.

There were also those who resisted the industrialization of household fitments. Arts and Crafts Movement architects such as A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852) and Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) championed the harmonious inclusion of handmade furniture into their structures. Harry L. Moses (c. 1877-c. 1935), a New Orleans designer, advertised himself locally as both an interior decorator and maker of fancy carved chairs. In the early twentieth century, Charles Milo Williams (1867-1954) created whimsical sketches of furniture adorned with intricate Moorish architectural embellishments.

The reconciliation of mechanization and fine craftsmanship occurred in the late 1920s. Architects associated with the Bauhaus created some of the twentieth century’s most significant chair designs. Such furniture impacted New Orleans architects in the years following World War II, as renowned architect-designers Charles Eames (1907-1978) and Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) garnered public acclaim, and as Knoll International expanded the American market for high quality “designer” furniture. Mark Lowery, Lemuel McCoy and James Lamantia’s entries for the Chicago Tribune’s 6th Annual Better Rooms Competition (1952) attest to these changing sensibilities.

Has designing a new kind of chair been modernity’s ultimate test of architectural genius? Visit CHAIRS: 125 Years of Design and decide for yourself.

Co-curated by Keli Rylance and Kevin Williams, CHAIRS: 125 Years of Design opens 9 November 2009 in the Southeastern Architectural Archive and runs through 10 November 2010. The SEAA is located at 6801 Freret Street/300 Jones Hall, on Tulane University’s campus. Hours are 9-12 and 1-5 Mondays-Fridays. Admission is free.

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