Can everything that has been shaped by a human into a thing of beauty or interest be considered art? One of Jacksonville’s foremost collectors of art, Dr. Diane Jacobsen, believes that even something as seemingly utilitarian as a chair can fit the definition. Her collection of chairs, spanning 200 years, is the basis of the “The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design,” opening at the MOCA on January 21st.
What started as the purchase of a single chair about six years ago has evolved into a love for the American chair’s sculptural quality, innovation and distinct design, says MOCA Curator Ben Thompson. “Chairs have a place in our rich cultural history and our history in arts,” Thompson explains. “Furniture design might be as important, or even more important, than paintings because of its functional nature.”
Jacobsen didn’t set out to have a collection of chairs, but as she bought more, she says that she “became enamored with chairs. [It was] the sculptural quality, the innovation, the design and the fact that these were truly American.”
As the collection expanded and more research was conducted, a treasure trove of remarkable patent drawings for innovative chair designs was found. The drawings highlight how the United States was at the forefront in patenting, explains Thompson. For example, a Victorian-era centripetal chair designed by Thomas E. Warren features a patented spring base, which was incorporated in later designs used in railroad passenger cars to absorb the shocks of bumpy train rides. Eventually, that spring base found its way into a number of chair designs for private homes.
American ingenuity is further exemplified in the Wire Seat Side Chair designed in 1876 by George Hunzinger, considered bold and brash for its day. The chair features a unique bracing system that strengthens the back of the chair because Americans enjoying tilting back while sitting. The second unique aspect is that the seat itself was not made from natural fibers, such as rush or cane, but from thin straps of steel encased by a woven wool and cotton covering.
“What we’re looking at,” says Jacobsen, “is the cultural, social, political and economic history of America, embodied in these chairs.”
Each chair has a story to tell– whether of an American community, an individual artist, an engineering innovation or even natural epidemics. Jon Brooks’ 1970 design of the Solid Elm Ball Chair emerged when Dutch Elm disease ravaged the forests of New England. Created from a single piece of affected elm, Brooks sculpted its rounded shape following the natural split of the wood. Reflecting the Counterculture’s values of returning to nature and the rise of ecology, the work is representative response of some American artists’ desire to return to more natural materials after the chaotic and irreverent Pop Design movement of the 1960s.
Two chairs- Cyrus Wakefield’s 1885 peacock rattan design and Wenzel Friedrich’s 1890 Texas Longhorn design- are early examples of functional artworks created from found and repurposed materials. The gorgeous Peacock chair is crafted from discarded rattan, a vine used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to secure packages during shipping. Anything but rustic, Wenzel Friedrich’s Texas Longhorn chairs use the steers’ horns and their natural curves to form its arms and legs. The upper horns are capped with ivory balls, while Tiffany glass balls for the chair’s feet adorn the lower horns. The bright blue silk fabric, beautifully tufted seat and rich colors have a distinct Bohemian influence, but the chair also mirrors the growing power of Texas ranchers in the late 1800s and America’s emerging love of the Wild West.
The upholstery on some of the older chairs might seem very bright for antiques. Thompson explained that some of the upholstery fabrics on the older chairs have been either replaced or restored. When it comes to antique chairs, the frames are never touched, but the soft goods, such as fabric and passementerie are replaced, with an effort to find or make fabrics as close to the original .
“It’s a balance between restoring objects as they were and showing their history by leaving the wear,” says Thompson.
The chairs have been meticulously researched to ensure that the restorations are accurate. The Longhorn chair, for example, was restored by looking at the colors on original trade cards for the chairs. Trade cards were used as advertisements to entice people to order things such as furnishings.
Although some chairs are 200 years old, they represent even more than antiques; they are touchstones of design and art movements. You’ll find a chair from architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who made furniture to fit with the aesthetic of his buildings, as well as the sculptural compressed cardboard Easy Edge High Stool from Frank Gehry. Some of the “antiques,” such as designs by the Shakers, still look modern yet timeless. Famed furniture makers such as the Stickley Brothers and modern seating from Knoll, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Herman Miller help to round out this incredible exhibition.
“After looking at this collection, it will be difficult to deny that chairs can be utilitarian art,” says Dr. Debra Murphy, chair of UNF’s Department of Art and Design. “The exhibition provides us with an opportunity to see readily recognizable pieces mixed with some gems rarely seen by the public. It is one of the most comprehensive retrospectives of American chair design, and it is such a proud accomplishment that it is originating in Jacksonville.”


april, 2022