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'The Art of Seating' at the Arkansas Arts Center presents a reflection on American design
Smythe Synergistic. Designed and Manufactured by Kenneth Smythe (b. 1937), Oakland, CA, Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1 Chair, 2003, Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn, Director of Acquisitions, Conservation and Photography.

LITTLE ROCK, ARK.- The Arkansas Arts Center, the state’s leader in international, visual and performing arts, announces its newest featured exhibition, The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design. The exhibition is on view Sept. 29 through Dec. 31, 2017.

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design is the first comprehensive survey of American chair design. The 43 chairs featured in the exhibition – hailing from the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen Ph.D. Foundation in Jacksonville, Fla. – document the rich and varied evolution of American design, illustrate the emergence of new technologies and materials, reflect changes in consumer taste, and illustrate social and cultural developments. Designed for function, each of these sculptural works possesses a unique story, revealing as much about its own creation as it does our collective national identity.

For millennia, people have built chairs to use as seating furniture. The oldest surviving chair is that of the ancient Egyptian princess, Sitamun, dating to approximately 1400 BCE (18th Dynasty), and now in the collection of the Cairo Museum. European immigrants in the 17th century brought chairs and with them to America. Once established, they began to make furniture using those European examples as prototypes. It was not until the early 19th century, however, that Americans began to manufacture chairs largely free of European influence and in a distinctly American style.

The earliest chairs in the exhibition, both dating to the first half of the 19th century, are a diminutive Ladderback Doll’s Chair and a similarly styled Rocking Arm Chair designed and made from local wood by a Shaker adherent for use in the religious community in New Lebanon, N.Y. The chairs reflect the ideals of the Founding Fathers, who encouraged and stressed the importance of forging a national identity in part through the domestic manufacture of finely crafted goods using native materials and technologies.

The 19th century was a period of rapid growth and profound change for the fledgling republic. In the decorative arts, particularly furniture, the classical influence of ancient Greece and Rome – popular in the first quarter of the century – gradually gave way to revival styles of past eras, like the Gothic Revival and Rococo Revival. These revival styles influenced the design and manufacture of seating furniture, which by this time were being produced in factories. These factories employed new technologies and materials in their manufacture, such as the use of steam-bent and laminated woods as seen in the exuberantly carved chairs by John Henry Belter.

Made nearly a century later, Charles and Ray Eames’s LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) echoes Belter’s Slipper Chair, through its use of laminated and molded woods. Hailed by TIME Magazine as the “Chair of the Century,” the LCW was praised for its compact and lightweight design, which appealed to the Baby Boom generation of mid-20th century Americans who were looking to outfit their homes and businesses with inexpensive, yet stylish, furnishings.

In contrast to the mass production of the LCW – which, in a testament to its timeless design, is still being produced today by the Herman Miller Furniture Company – Vivian Beer’s sinuous and sensuous chair, Current, continues the tradition and spirit of the American studio furniture movement, which peaked around 1960, yet remains vibrant today. Its early proponents – Sam Maloof, Wendell Castle, and Jon Brooks, among others – favored the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship by hand over those made through mass production. Beer’s Current pushes the ever-shifting boundary between craft and design, and of utility and a sculptural work of art. About Current, Beer said, “I wanted this chair to seem as if it had been cut and crushed out of a single sheet of metal. At the same time, I wanted it to feel as fast and clean as water in its silhouette with the power of implied brutal forming in the background. The balance and trickery are important.”

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