It might seem strange to see a museum devote an entire exhibit to chairs. After all, they aren’t exactly exotic. Most of us spend hours in a chair every day -- some of us might even complain about what said chair is doing to our backs. Chairs have been easing our workdays and providing comfort during our leisure time for thousands of years. You might think it difficult to see something so commonplace and so ordinary as art.
If so, the Columbia Museum of Art’s
new exhibit The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design just might change your mind. The chairs in this collection are beautiful, elegant and anything but ordinary. The artisans who designed these fabulous sitables have taken the mundane and turned it into something sublime.
The exhibit is a chronological display of popular and innovative chair designs from the 1800s to the present day. The incredible thing about the collection is the way that it demonstrates changing American tastes, styles and values through something that is, by its very nature, utilitarian.
The first room houses seating from the beginning of the 1800s and shows the immense changes at work in the time period. The Industrial Revolution allowed new materials and machinery to be used in the creation of furniture. Simultaneously, the romantic movement, itself a reaction against increasing industry, reveled in natural forms.
By the second half of the 19th century, exotic motifs were gaining popularity. The Victorian interest in the far east is evident in the faux-bamboo chairs and exquisite silks in this exhibit hall. Archeological digs in Egypt at the time increased the use of ancient, almost hieroglyphic designs. You can see the Victorian American’s quest for the exotic at all costs in the Texas Longhorn chair that uses those horns as armrests, striking an almost bizarre contrast against a bright, blue silk upholstery.
The next rooms take us into a more familiar design arena. Modern mid-century styles, like the Eames’ LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) look like something you might find on the set of Mad Men – or even in your Crate and Barrel catalog. The clean, modern lines of this furniture evoke the streamlined, post-war look of 1950s America. They were also built for a new America. No longer were the chairs formal and upright; these chairs were made for Americans who were more comfortable slouching.
Finally, you are catapulted into the last half of the 20th century’s futuristic designs. Plexiglas, Formica and steel have replaced wood, rattan and velvet. In the 1960s, President John Kennedy promised to send Americans to the moon; these designers brought the moon to American living rooms.
The Art of Seating:200 Years of America Design is on display now through Aug. 26 at the Columbia
Museum of Art. The museum is open Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and military, $5 for students and free for children 5 and younger. Admission is free for all every Sunday courtesy of SC Blue Cross Blue Shield.