Review: ‘The Art of Seating’ by Peter Newlin

Obviously, a chair is a place to sit, but what kind of comfort should it offer? Should it be cushy? Enforce an upright posture? Accommodate slouching? Rotate on command? Give as you move in it? And what should it look like? Should it illustrate themes from a foreign culture? Celebrate hand-crafted joinery? Display a cartoon of classical decoration? Celebrate machine-made manufacturing? Be as light as a zephyr? As heavy as the log it’s carved from? You’ll find chairs at a show in Easton being illustrating all of these, and doing so beautifully. As a sign in the entry hall proclaims: “Few objects tell the history of modern design as eloquently as the chair.”

The chairs, all American originals, are on exhibit at the Academy Museum in a show called “The Art of Seating – two hundred years of American design.” That introduction suggests we might learn from the chairs what we have been as Americans during the eras of the Civil War, the Spanish American, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.  Can the chairs help us figure that out? Who do we aspire to be? What do we want to own? How do we want to sit, when seen by others? To my surprise, they help. Pluralism and diversity are certainly on display.

Each chair is on its own low pedestal, 9” or so above the floor. I love the way they are presented. To the right of the chair is a text block that describes the designer’s aspirations and tells when the chair was made. To the left is a short list of contemporary events, such as: “Thoreau published Walden Pond in 1854,” to give us an inkling of what else was going on when the chair was conceived; the cultural context. In the space between the cultural context and the maker’s aspirations, we have only the chair itself – a huge opportunity to draw one’s own conclusions.

The earliest chair in the show is an anonymous product of the Utopian Shakers, displaying “deliberately undecorated” simplicity – craftsmanship without adornment. The contextual text accompanying this chair says much more about the chair itself than most:

1787 Shaker found a community…Mount Lebanon.
1837 Samuel Morse introduces telegraph
1848 Gold is discovered in California
1863 President Lincoln grants the Shakers an exemption from review in the Civil War making them among the first in America to be given status of conscientious object
1876 – The Mount Lebanon ladder-back chair receives a medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition for its combination of “strength, sprightliness, and modest beauty”

Everyday work had religious importance for the Shakers. In my youth, my tool kit carried a scrap of yellow paper with an admonition by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784): “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live; and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” I much aspired to that discipline, but never voluntarily to Shaker celibacy.

Designed by a Shaker for a Community Member, New Lebanon, NY New Lebanon Shaker Community (1787-1947), NY Rocking Arm Chair, c. 1840 Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn

Why didn’t my Quaker heritage generate a book’s worth of beautiful objects like the Shakers? Quakers certainly favored simplicity, but the only worldly saying I can think of which might be Quaker is: “Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places,” – advice I take to mean, do right in your private relations, and stay the hell out of the public eye.

At the curator’s talk, we were shown pictures of three presidents sitting in a chairs designed by the Architect of the Capital, Thomas Walter. A good many of the chairs in the show are architect-designed, especially the more recent ones.

Designed by Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887) Manufactured by Hammitt Desk Manufacturing Company, Philadelphia, PA House of Representatives Chamber Arm Chair, 1857 Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn

I started my working life as a craftsman, first in metals with Dad, then in wood, but now I make my living as a designer of things that get made by others: architectural structures principally, but also landscaping, lighting fixtures, cabinetry, tables, and most recently the redesign of a historic marquee. Like many in my profession, I have an appetite to examine how any unusual object is made. For me, things exhibiting great craftsmanship are imbued with the love of their making for anyone willing to regard them thoughtfully. They attract via their beauty of form, and reward in how they treat materials and details, and in the service of our needs.

Ironically there’s a chair in the show identified plainly as “Side Chair” that’s made of elaborate materials: mahogany, rosewood, an inlay of copper, brass, pewter, mother of pearl, and cushions covered with silk. Another chair, simply named “Current” is just “steel and auto paint.” Both aspire to elegance, but “Current” does so by grace and minimalism. These are celebrations of craftsmanship but at opposing extremes in terms of exhibiting the hands of the maker.

Designed and Manufactured by Vivian Beer (b. 1977), Penland, NC
Current, 2004 Photo by Douglas J. Eng

Most designers and craftsmen do their very best. Still, the outcome only achieves “Art” when it stirs the emotions of many, each discerning from his own individual point of view. What I think enriches me isn’t necessarily what will do that for you, but there is a chair or three in this exhibit to thrill any one of us. In this exhibit, the aspirations of the makers are just as different as we are from one another.

When he was in his late 90’s, I asked my father what he would become if he had to do it all over again. His answer: “a tool designer” surprised me. I had expected “engineer” but he explained he wanted to be what he had always been, a person who is asked to make something there isn’t yet a way to make, who gets to design the tools to make it. No wonder we children grew up with a machine shop in the basement, in a house always under construction, and got to watch our father make jewelry day in and day out for the thirty years of his retirement.

When we were at the Art of Seating exhibit together, I asked Dad which chair he found most interesting? He made a beeline for the “Centripetal Spring Arm Chair.” It is a set of cast iron legs connected to a cast iron chair frame by eight semicircular springs. I wanted to run away, flailing my arms and screaming. To me this chair is a cross between the metal framing of a 19th century train shed and the plushness of a bordello. (Not that I’ve ever been to one, mind you.) Dad has always been drawn to metals and manufacturing, whereas I love wood and joinery.

Designed by Thomas E. Warren (active with American Chair Co. 1849-52)
Manufactured by the American Chair Co. (1829-1858), Troy, NY
Centripetal Spring Arm Chair, c. 1850 Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn

I asked my social-worker wife, Gale Tucker, what she most enjoyed about this exhibit: “There were chairs I had never seen before,” she said, “different fabrics, and all sorts of connection details, many of which I had also never seen before. And, the progression from style to style.”

When I asked my long-time friend, the editor of this publication, what he most enjoyed, he told me he had begun a collection of chairs as a young man, and was thrilled to see the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) designed by the husband-and-wife team, Charles and Ray Ames “acknowledged as the breakthrough it was,” adding: “it’s simple, and, unlike some of its contemporary peers, it’s deceptively comfortable.” The seat and back are independent plates of gently curved plywood, which support our body. They are “amazingly comfortable” he says. A diagram in the exhibit shows the seat and back are isolated from the frame by thick rubber washers which allow these plates to float, and move responsively when we do.

Designed by Charles Eames (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988)
Manufactured by Evans Products, Co. for Herman Miller Furniture Company (Est. 1923), Grand Rapids, MILCW (Lounge Chair Wood), c. 1945 Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn,

After the exhibit, when we were relaxing at dinner, this erstwhile friend of mine suggested I design a chair with the footnote that, “all serious architects should at least designed one.”

The pleasure of the sip of wine in my mouth was suddenly overtaken by dry anxiety, as I started to contemplate how the structure must handle the forces a human body can exert upon a chair in so many different directions, yet it must also be comfortable and visually pleasing – a utilitarian object we want to share our home with, and can also afford. My respect for chair designers spiked. I took a good gulp of the wine to dampen my loss of self-esteem.

As I see it, the only thing to be truly unhappy about at this exhibit is, so many of these chairs are begging to be sat in. Comfort beckons! But the strictures of a museum intercede. Oh, sad, sad day for the unrequited kiester!

Bring your friends and loved ones to this exhibit. It will make you all happy.

Peter Newlin has been practicing architecture in Chestertown since 1978. He and his firm, Chesapeake Architects, have won regional, state-wide and national awards for town planning, energy conservation, historic preservation and contemporary design.

Editor note: Please add your own thoughts to continue this conversation. For example, if you have already seen this show, which chair(s) did you enjoy the most?