EDMONTON.- Most chairs encountered throughout the day define themselves fairly simplya place at the family table, a comfortable spot with a great view of the river, a seat of corporate power. These chairs, however, have compelling stories to tell about artistry, craftsmanship and the evolution of American design.
This exhibition of 43 chairs and one footstool, from the Jacobsen Collection of American Art, showcases American craftsmanship and design as embodied in a utilitarian object. Using materials as diverse as steer horns, cast iron, molded birch plywood and silk damask, Americans designed chairs that spoke to the eras in which they were created. The Centripetal Spring Arm Chair, for example, represents the spirit of innovation and mechanization that characterized the nineteenth century. The chair seat floats on eight iron springs, allowing the seated individual to change position easily. This exhibition, which runs until October 6, 2013, shows how even ordinary objects can be beautiful, functional, and represent the spirit of their times.
DESIGN, SOCIETY AND CULTURE
The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design explores the rich tradition of chair making in the United States, placing it in the context not only of design trends, but of larger social and cultural developments. The 43 chairs that form the core of this exhibition certainly were designed with function in mind. But each also has a story to tell about who created it and what its design says about Americas national history. As close neighbours, Canadian designers and consumers are influenced by the American market. While the exhibition is drawn from an American collection, we can see relationships with our own products and homes.
The Rocking Arm Chair, designed around 1840 by a Shaker community member in New Lebanon, New York, speaks to the stylistic simplicity of early nineteenth-century design. The House of Representatives Chamber Arm Chair, 1857, embodies a growing nation. The federal shield on the crest rail, the oak bows representing strength, and the chairs overall form speak to the Romans and the origins of republicanism. Twentieth and twenty-first century chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames and Ray Eames, and Laurie Beckerman reflect international design trends as well as modern American manufacturing techniques, craftsmanship and materials.
The materials used are as diverse as silk damask, steel and steer horn. There are chairs with three, four, or no legs, chairs that tilt and chairs designed to be sturdy. Some speak to the particular and exotic, while others speak to the needs of a growing consumer society. The large range of styles and materials offer a vivid timeline of changes in American society and design and, by extension, our own.
WHAT ABOUT CANADA?
Of course Canadians have always had their own designers.
The furniture industry in Ontario dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. It manufactured furniture using Canadian workers and Canadian lumber. The industry thrived until the 1970s.
Canadian design trends mirrored international trends, although modernism was slow to take hold. This may be because we did not adopt the modern flat-roofed house designa snow-load concern!
Our biggest connection to this chair exhibition is likely as consumers the Americans were excellent at accessible design (which has universal appeal) and efficient use of modern materials. The modern furniture of the 1950s on informs Canadian design aesthetics to this day.
Examples of modern chair design in the Western Canadian History collection prove that Albertans paid attention to international trends and bought American products.