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Monday, November 20, 2017

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design

Fig. 1: Grecian settee, design and manufacture attributed to John Finlay (active ca. 1799–1833) and Hugh Finlay (active ca. 1800–1837), Baltimore, Md., ca. 1825. Painted wood, freehand and stenciled gilt decoration, caning, reproduction silk upholstery. H. 30-1/2, W. 76, D. 21 in. © Columbia Museum of Art. Photography by Jonathan Goley.
The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design by Brian J. Lang
The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design by Brian J. Lang
Fig. 1: Grecian settee, design and manufacture attributed to John Finlay (active ca. 1799–1833) and Hugh Finlay (active ca. 1800–1837), Baltimore, Md., ca. 1825. Painted wood, freehand and stenciled gilt decoration, caning, reproduction silk upholstery. H. 30-1/2, W. 76, D. 21 in. © Columbia Museum of Art. Photography by Jonathan Goley.

For millennia, humans have utilized seating furniture. The earliest surviving three-dimensional depiction of a chair is a clay model dating back to approximately 4750–4600 BCE; the oldest surviving chair belonged to the Egyptian princess Sitamun (Cairo Museum) and dates to approximately 1400 BCE. European immigrants to the New World in the seventeenth century brought chairs and other furnishings with them and began to produce chairs domestically shortly thereafter, adhering to the European prototypes. It was not until the early nineteenth century that Americans began to manufacture furnishings which, while they still borrowed classical and European motifs, had a decidedly American flavor.

In the years following the Revolution, the Founding Fathers looked to the democratic ideals of ancient Greece and Rome for the basis of the fledgling political system. Artists, architects, and designers also borrowed motifs from the classical past to reflect the moral and aesthetic values of the young Republic. Specialized seating furniture directly modeled on ancient prototypes—the klismos chair, the curule seat, and Grecian benches—were to be found within elite households during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

As a burgeoning port city in the early nineteenth century, Baltimore attracted numerous foreign-trained craftsmen equipped to satisfy the desires of elite patrons for the latest fashions from abroad. John and Hugh Finlay, Irish-trained ornamental painters, became the leading craftsmen for “fancy” painted furniture in Baltimore, and established a vogue in the city that inspired other cabinetmakers to imitate their work. With its caned, platform seat, cylindrical arms and robust, turned legs, the painted Grecian settee (Fig. 1), clearly inspired by ancient Greek and Roman couches or beds, is a form unique to Baltimore. The overall design shows the cabinetmaker’s familiarity with popular pattern books of the day, specifically Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807) and Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine’s Recueil de Décorations Intérieures (1812). Attributed to the shop of the Finlay brothers, the circa-1825 settee bears close stylistic similarities to a pair of Grecian benches made in the Finlay shop, based on a design by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1809) for the redecoration of the White House during the James Madison administration. The freehand and stenciled gilt motifs on the backrest—a stylized swan-and-lyre with alternating torch and crossed arrows set above a Greek key band—are adapted from designs in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1791), while the gilt floral motif on the front seat rail is adapted from classical and French sources and demonstrates the French taste much favored in Baltimore at the time.

Fig. 2: Rocking armchair designed and manufactured by a Shaker for a community member, New Lebanon, N.Y., ca. 1840. Maple, cloth tape. H. 45-1/4, W. 21-3/4, D. 26 in. Fig. 3: Slipper chair designed and manufactured by John Henry Belter (1804–1863), New York, N.Y., ca. 1855. Laminated and carved rosewood, brass casters, reproduction silk damask upholstery. H. 43-3/4, W. 18-1/4, D. 20-1/4 in.
Fig. 2: Rocking armchair designed and manufactured by a Shaker for a community member, New Lebanon, N.Y., ca. 1840. Maple, cloth tape. H. 45-1/4, W. 21-3/4, D. 26 in.

Fig. 3: Slipper chair designed and manufactured by John Henry Belter (1804–1863), New York, N.Y., ca. 1855. Laminated and carved rosewood, brass casters, reproduction silk damask upholstery. H. 43-3/4, W. 18-1/4, D. 20-1/4 in.

In contrast, the undecorated and restrained simplicity of the circa-1840 rocking armchair (Fig. 2) perfectly illustrates the functional design of domestic objects in the Shaker style. A Protestant sect commonly referred to as “Shakers,” due to their demonstrative dancing during worship, the followers of founder “Mother” Ann Lee arrived in America from England in 1774 and settled the first of twenty-four communities at New Lebanon (later Mount Lebanon) in upstate Columbia County, New York. Members of the Shaker communities believed that work was a form of worship. Consequently, this focused tenet led to many pioneering Shaker inventions, including the clothespin, rotary harrow, circular saw, flat broom, wheel-driven washing machine and paper-packaged garden seeds.

Shaker furniture is divided into two groups: that made for use within the Shaker community and that made for sale to “the world,” as Shakers referred to people outside the sect. While Shaker seating furniture made for both groups incorporated the use of woven cloth tape on the seat bottom, the refined design details on this example—the gracefully scrolled armrests and tapered oval finials—indicate it was made by a New Lebanon community member and passed down within the sect.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, classical influences had given way to a number of other revival styles. The reign of Napoleon III (reigned 1852–1870) in France revived interest in the Rococo style of the Ancien Régime of the earlier Valois and Bourbon dynasties, which quickly diffused to the United States. The concurrent Industrial Revolution in America saw the establishment of factories creating domestic goods en mass for a rapidly expanding middle class. These factories employed new technologies to produce steam-bent and laminated woods that were cut in fanciful patterns and embellished with rich stains and exotic veneers to heighten the visual effect.

Nowhere are these technological innovations more evident than in the seating furniture produced in the New York City factory of German immigrant John Henry Belter (1804–1863). He patented several processes for the manufacture of his furniture, specifically a type of jigsaw that efficiently cut the elaborately pierced backs of chairs, as well as a method for bending cross-laminated wood into a continuous rail and stile, resulting in added strength and a pleasing aesthetic. His circa-1855 slipper chair (Fig. 3) perfectly illustrates Belter’s technological innovations and is a visual tour de force of the Rococo Revival aesthetic. The back of the chair, comprised of several layers of laminated and steam-bent rosewood, is pierced into a swirling mass of grape clusters, acorns, and both grape and oak leaves, all set within a frame of stylized grape tendrils that form the stiles. The undulating curves of the overall design draw the viewer’s eyes upward toward the crest rail, which contains a deeply carved floral and foliate bundle at its center. The bundle is further mirrored in the center of the front seat rail as well as on the knees of the cabriole legs. The chair could be interpreted as a three-dimensional manifestation of the paintings of the contemporaneous Severin Roesen (ca. 1815–ca. 1872), whose still-life paintings depicting bountiful tablescapes served as emblems of their owners’ prosperity and well-being.

This era of national prosperity was interrupted by the Civil War and its devastating effects. However the Reconstruction years following the war gave rise to a second wave of industrialization, allowing for great fortunes to be amassed by a small populace made wealthy through banking, shipping, the railroad, and steel manufacturing. These individuals utilized the services of interior decorating firms to furnish “Gilded Age” homes in the latest fashion, heavily influenced by the exoticism of the Orient. Foremost among these firms was the New York City partnership of Herter Brothers (active 1864–1905). Its founder, Gustave Herter (1830–1898), the son of a master cabinetmaker, immigrated to America from Germany in 1848. With the arrival several years later of his well-traveled half brother, Christian Herter (1839–1883), the trajectory of the firm changed dramatically, offering bold and markedly un-European creations in a variety of traditional styles and embracing more avant-garde designs.

Fig. 4: Side chair designed by Christian  Herter (1839–1883); manufactured  by Herter Brothers (1865–1905),  New York, ca. 1880. Ebonized cherry,  gilding, reproduction silk lampas upholstery  of a documented fabric used on Herter  seating furniture (original foundation).  H. 34, W. 17-1/2, D. 19-1/2 in. Fig. 4: Side chair designed by Christian
Herter (1839–1883); manufactured
by Herter Brothers (1865–1905),
New York, ca. 1880. Ebonized cherry,
gilding, reproduction silk lampas upholstery
of a documented fabric used on Herter
seating furniture (original foundation).
H. 34, W. 17-1/2, D. 19-1/2 in.
Fig. 4: Side chair designed by Christian  Herter (1839–1883); manufactured  by Herter Brothers (1865–1905),  New York, ca. 1880. Ebonized cherry,  gilding, reproduction silk lampas upholstery  of a documented fabric used on Herter  seating furniture (original foundation).  H. 34, W. 17-1/2, D. 19-1/2 in.
For their more elaborate chair commissions, the Herter Brothers utilized a basic frame design, which could be embellished in any number of stylistic variations. This formula is perfectly illustrated in their circa-1880 side chair (Fig. 4), which incorporates a variety of artistic styles drawn from the Romanesque, Anglo-Japanese, and Reform Gothic design vocabularies. Made of carved and ebonized cherry heightened through gilding, the seat back features a colonnade of Moorish or Romanesque-style arches surmounted by a wide crest carved with an elaborate Asian-inspired plant motif. The silk lampas upholstery on the seat, though not original to the chair, echoes the dense, stylized foliage carved on the crest and is copied from fragmentary pieces of an original silk show cover found on a Herter Brothers couch dating to the same period.

The Arts and Crafts movement that swept America and Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (1880–1920) was a rejection of Victorian excess and of the factory goods mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution. While the movement was not a rejection of the use of all machinery in the making of goods, it celebrated the production of individually crafted objects made in studios or small workshops. Movement leaders Gustav Stickley (1858–1942) and his brothers, Albert (1851–1954) and John George (1871–1921), advocated for the creation of a distinctive American style that would integrate furnishings, architecture, handicrafts, and principles of harmonious living. Gustav promoted that well-designed furnishings could help “make life better and truer by its perfect simplicity.”

Fig. 5: Oxbow armchair designed by David Robertson Smith (dates not known); manufactured by Stickley Brothers (Albert and John George) (1891–ca. 1932), Grand Rapids, Mich., ca. 1903. Oak, original green leather upholstery, handwrought copper. H. 32-3/4, W. 23, D. 22 in.
Fig. 5: Oxbow armchair designed by David Robertson Smith (dates not known); manufactured by Stickley Brothers (Albert and John George) (1891–ca. 1932), Grand Rapids, Mich., ca. 1903. Oak, original green leather upholstery, handwrought copper. H. 32-3/4, W. 23, D. 22 in.

Designed by David Robertson Smith, who joined Stickley Brothers in 1902, the circa-1903 oxbow armchair (Fig. 5) illustrates the clean lines, visible mortise-and-tenon joinery, and accentuated wood grain typical of the Craftsman design aesthetic. While its name calls to mind the American rural aesthetic, with the visual reference to an oxen’s yoke, the chair’s design also reflects a global influence. Through its yoke-shaped and steam-bent arms, shape of the splat, and the fumed oak finish imitative of Chinese huanghuali wood, the chair evokes parallels to quanyi (“horseshoe back”) chairs made during the Ming Dynasty. Smith diverged from traditional Chinese examples, however, most notably by reducing the number of legs from four to three, changing the stretchers from box-shaped to T-shaped, and by continuing the splat down to the stretcher rather than stopping it at the seat.

Despite the tumult caused by two World Wars, the first half of the twentieth century continued to be an innovative time for designers, who began to experiment with new materials and processes utilized during the war effort. In the years following the Great War (1914–1918), the full flowering of the modern design aesthetic was realized in the “International Style,” as promulgated by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887–1965)—commonly known as Le Corbusier—and members of the Bauhaus, the school of art, craft and design located in the Weimar Republic of Germany. Their agenda was utopian in focus, socialistic, relied on machine production, and sought to eliminate any nationalist identity or reference to historical antecedents in their designs. Seating furniture of the International Style reflected a machine aesthetic, and employed a reductive form of simple, continuous tubular metal framing.

Fig. 6: Sling seat lounge chair designed
by Warren McArthur (1885–1961);
manufactured by Warren McArthur Corporation,
Rome, N.Y., ca. 1935. Anodized aluminum,
rubber upholstery. H. 31-3/4, W. 22, D. 31 in.
Fig. 6: Sling seat lounge chair designed  by Warren McArthur (1885–1961);  manufactured by Warren McArthur Corporation,  Rome, N.Y., ca. 1935. Anodized aluminum,  rubber upholstery. H. 31-3/4, W. 22, D. 31 in.
Fig. 6: Sling seat lounge chair designed  by Warren McArthur (1885–1961);  manufactured by Warren McArthur Corporation,  Rome, N.Y., ca. 1935. Anodized aluminum,  rubber upholstery. H. 31-3/4, W. 22, D. 31 in.
While recalling the linearity of the International Style, the designs of Warren McArthur (1885–1961) actually predate many of his European counterparts, particularly those of Marcel Breuer (1902–1981). In 1924, one year before Breuer designed his revolutionary “Wassily” chair, McArthur began experimenting with tubular metal to build furniture made of standardized parts and innovative fastening systems. His sling seat lounge chair (Fig. 6), circa 1935, is the full realization of McArthur’s experimentations. In it, he utilizes a dynamic system of standardized parts, assembled tectonically, employing an outer tube of brushed aluminum and an inner rod of steel; considerable strength is attained despite the use of minimal material as the outer tube is held in compression by the inner rod under tension. Possessing a streamlined, sculptural quality, its cold and stark surface caused by the use of bent tubular metal is echoed and softened by the half-round upholstery trimmed with black piping.

Fig. 7: LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) designed by Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (1912–1988); manufactured by Evans Products Company for Herman Miller Furniture Company (est. 1923), Zeeland, Mich., ca. 1945. Molded birch plywood, rubber shock mounts. H. 26, W. 22, D. 24 in.
Fig. 7: LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) designed by Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (1912–1988); manufactured by Evans Products Company for Herman Miller Furniture Company (est. 1923), Zeeland, Mich., ca. 1945. Molded birch plywood, rubber shock mounts. H. 26, W. 22, D. 24 in.

Restrictions on the use of metals in the years preceding and during World War II led American manufacturers to experiment with plastics, fiberglass, and wood laminates in home and office furnishings. Following the war, suburban sprawl—fueled by a booming housing market due to returning GIs, combined with a rising automobile culture—prompted such American firms as Herman Miller, Knoll, and others, to mass-produce quality furnishings at affordable prices. These firms oftentimes engaged architects and industrial designers, such as the husband-and-wife team of Charles (1907–1978) and Ray (née Kaiser) Eames (1912–1988), to collaborate on designs.

In the early 1940s, inspired by John Henry Belter’s long-expired 1858 patent for using heat and pressure to bend cross-grained wood laminate, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (1910–1961)—with assistance from Ray Kaiser (who later married Charles)—adapted Belter’s technology to mold plywood, entering their designs to two groundbreaking exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940 and 1942. Charles and Ray Eames continued working with molded plywood through a commission to supply leg splints to the military during World War II. Further refinements in their technology resulted in their now legendary design, the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood ) (Fig. 7). The striking aesthetics of the chair—which appear almost zoomorphic—derive from the separation of the soft, organic shape of the backrest (head), the seat (thorax), the spine (splat) and the quadruped legs. Praised for its compact and lightweight design—Time magazine proclaimed it the “Chair of the Century”—the LCW appealed to an expanding post-war middle-class of consumers and a subsequent Baby Boom generation, who were looking to outfit their homes and businesses with inexpensive, yet stylish, furnishings. So timeless is its design, the chair remains in production today by the Herman Miller Company.

Fig. 8: Ionic Bench designed by Laurie Beckerman (b. 1953); manufactured by Heritage Woodshop (est. 1995), Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010. Baltic birch plywood laminate. H. 21, W. 49, D. 18 in. Photography by Douglas J. Eng.
Fig. 8: Ionic Bench designed by Laurie Beckerman (b. 1953); manufactured by Heritage Woodshop (est. 1995), Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010. Baltic birch plywood laminate. H. 21, W. 49, D. 18 in. Photography by Douglas J. Eng.

Coming full circle nearly two hundred years later, the 2010 Ionic Bench (Fig, 8) designed by Laurie Beckerman (b. 1953) harkens back to classical antiquity for inspiration. Interpreting the profile of a capital from an ionic column, the light and sinuous bench is designed to accommodate one person in its center, flanked on either side by two luxurious and oversized scrolls. Made from one-inch-thick Baltic birch plywood, the bench’s profile is cut out eighteen times through the use of computer numerically controlled (CNC) technology. The slices are then laminated together, with their top surfaces finely sanded and coated with a high-grade Italian acrylic, resulting in a finish that is sensuous to the touch and a strong, curvaceous form. An architecture graduate of Pratt Institute, Beckerman envisioned the Ionic Bench for use in a hallway where boots and other footwear could be stored within its curves.

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design by Brian J. Lang
More than forty exceptional examples of American chairs are on view in The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design at the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina, from April 28 through August 26, 2012. Drawn from the Jacobsen Collection of American Chairs, in collaboration with Andrew VanStyn, Director of Acquisitions, Conservation and Photography, the chairs document the rich and varied evolution of American design. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Jacksonville, and circulated by International Arts and Artists (IA&A), Washington, D.C., the exhibition next travels to the Academy Art Museum, Easton, Md. (November 29, 2012–January 2013); the Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (June 15, 2013–October 6, 2013); the Hilliard University Art Museum, Lafayette, La. (January 17, 2014–April 11, 2014); and the Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pa. (May 31, 2014–July 27, 2014).


Brian J. Lang is curator of decorative arts at the Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, S.C.

All photography credited to Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn, Director of Acquisitions, Conservation and Photography, Jacobsen Collection of American Chairs, unless otherwise noted.

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