Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Furniture conforming to…..?

Jere Osgood (born 1936, United States), Ebony Desk, 1990. Macassar ebony, Australian lacewood, Padauk, pearwood, ash, and leather. Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC. © 2013 Jere Osgood. (MIN-64)

Traditionally, furniture was designed to conform to the human body and what was being worn at the time. That’s why we see low side chairs with no arms during the mid-1800s when women were wearing huge crinolines (hoop skirts) or bustles. During the Middle Ages (ca. 500–1100 ce) in the West, low benches were elaborately carved, included storage, and were used not only for sitting but also sleeping. Furniture in China, Korea, and Japan combined utility with comfort. Since the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s to early 1900s—which stressed aesthetics as well as utility— furniture has, in my mind, come to rival sculpture as an art form.

Jere Osgood studied both architecture and furniture design at the School for American Craftsmen. In 1975 he established the Woodworking Department at the Artisanry Program of Boston University. Osgood credits the study of architecture for his furniture design method. It imitates the stages of designing a building: choosing the m

aterials and coming up with a complete design. His use of laminates (thin pieces of bent wood) and his emphasis on the bent wood process— in which steam helps slowly curve a straight piece of wood—have had a profound impact on contemporary furniture designers. This beautiful desk combines a sophisticated laminate process (the “draped” top that belies the nature of the wood), and bent wood process in the legs.

Many American museums encourage exhibitions of contemporary furniture design. The result is always exciting. I’m thinking of the shows I’ve seen at the MFA in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What always strikes me is that a lot of contemporary furniture design adheres to principles that were established in the late 1800s by Arts and Crafts movement artists, and then a little later by Bauhaus artists in Germany (ca. 1919–1933). They believed that utilitarian objects, such as furniture, could be not only functional, but aesthetically pleasing. I think you’ll agree when you look at my choices of bent wood furniture!

Other furniture artists who work with bent wood and laminates:

Jon Brooks (born 1944, United States), “Ansouis” Chair, 1978. White ash, 101.6 x 61 x 121.9 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2013 Jon Brooks. (PMA-4156)

Arne Jacobsen (designer, 1902–1971, Denmark) and Fritz Hansen (maker, firm established 1872, Copenhagen), Ant Chair, 1951. Molded plywood with metal legs, 77.1 x 51.5 x 49.2 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art. © 2013 Estate of Arne Jacobsen. (CL-490)

Peter Danko (born 1949, United States), Armchair, 1982. Walnut veneer, poplar, leather upholstery; 77.47 x 55.24 x 60.96 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2013 Peter Danko. (MFAB-496)

Herbert van Thaden and Donald Lewis Jordan (active mid-20th century) for Thaden Jordan Furniture Company, Experimental Plywood Recliner, 1947. Plywood, 91.4 x 50.2 cm. © Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0860)

Joe Colombo (designer, 1930–1971, Italy) and Kartell S.p.A. (maker, firm founded 1949, Milan region), Lounge Chair, 1964. Molded plywood and polyester lacquer, 58.7 x 70.5 x 62.9 cm. Museum of Modern art, New York. © 2013 Estate of Joe Colombo. (MOMA-D0087)

Grete Jalk (designer 1920–2006, Denmark) and Poul Jeppesen (maker, 1909–1986, Denmark), Lounge Chair, 1963. Teak, 74.9 x 62.9 x 69.2 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Estate of Grete Jalk. (MOMA-D0808)
Marc Newson (designer, born 1963, Australia) and Cappellini S.p.A. (manufacturer; firm founded 1946; Arosio, Italy), Wood Chair, 1988. Beech, 61.9 x 82.6 x 101 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Marc Newson. (MOMA-D0392)

Many artists who are architects also design furniture:

Frank Gehry (designer, born 1929, United States) and Knoll (manufacturer, firm founded 1937, New York), Power Play Armchair, 1991. Bent-laminated maple, 83.2 x 77.5 x 80 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Frank Gehry. (MOMA-D0497)
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (designer, 1886–1969, Germany / United States) and Bamberg Metallwerkstätten (maker, firm established 1931, Berlin), MR Chaise Longue (model 104), 1931. Chrome-plated tubular steel with contour canvas cushion, 95.3 x 59.8 x 119.9 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Estate of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0067mvdars).

Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) (designer, 1887–1965, Switzerland) and Thonet Frères (maker, firm founded 1929, Paris), Chaise Longue, 1927. Chrome-plated tubular steel, painted steel, fabric, and leather; 61 x 50 x 158 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Estate of Le Corbusier / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0076lcars)

Studio activity:  Design a chair that reflects contemporary life. Consider how a chair could conform to the way people dress, sit, or rest. Use pencil, colored pencil, or color markers to design the chair. The chair could reflect the surroundings (be it urban or rural) or personal preferences—such as well padded or strictly geometric.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 35-36 studio, Explorations in Art Grade 4: studio 15 and 16, The Visual Experience: 12.4, Discovering Art History: 2.2

Monday, June 17, 2013


The art of lacquer has long fascinated me. When I was in an Asian Art seminar in college (decades ago), I learned that ancient Chinese bodies coated in lacquer still had supple skin. Now that’s amazing. It is a remarkable material that is used to give a lustrous and durable surface to a myriad of objects, obviously including the human body in ancient days.

Lacquer is the sap derived from a tree (called “uroshi”) in Japan. Lacquer is a natural plastic, resistant to water, acid, and heat. When the sap is collected, it is heated to remove impurities. The purified lacquer can then be applied to any surface. The Chinese even coated deceased members of the nobility to preserve the physical body. High-quality lacquer may require as many as thirty to forty coats to achieve a durable finish. The lacquer technique in Japan was imported from China, although the Chinese were unique in their heavily built up surfaces of carved lacquer. Japanese artists preferred to emphasize the shape of the object with subtle tonal variations in the lacquer.

The Japanese were using lacquer as early as the Jomon Period (ca. 1500–200 bce) to decorate pottery. They did not start evolving sophisticated lacquer pieces until the Nara Period (645–794 ce). Originally, lacquer was used on common objects such as boxes, combs, and small household shrine objects as a way of protecting them from wear. What’s interesting is that in Japan lacquer then evolved as a medium to represent the Zen Buddhist idea of the transience of life.

This beautifully turned wooden vessel exhibits the two major colors of lacquer available at the time: black and red. Black was applied first with a layer of red over it. It was not applied thickly, because of the desire by the artist to see the eventual wearing down of the red layer with the black layer peeking through. This is the unplanned, spontaneous nature of Zen Buddhism that emphasized being ready to welcome Enlightenment at a moment’s notice, regardless of how unprepared they felt.

Negoro ware originated from a monastery in Japan’s Kil Province that flourished in the lacquer production during the 1300s to 1400s. The sake bottle would have been for the priest’s own use. Sake was important during the Buddhist wedding ceremony, much like wine is in Christian weddings. Negoro ware was greatly prized for its seeming antiquity, due to the erosion of the red (vermilion) overglaze.

Westerner’s were greatly intrigued by the unique, durable quality of lacquer, but never quite perfected the technique, as the uroshi tree did not exist in Europe. Shellac or varnish from the sap of pine trees was used in multiple layers, especially furniture, to imitate Japanese lacquer with painted and gold leaf designs underneath.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Exploring Visual Design: 2; The Visual Experience: 13.5; Discovering Art History: 2.3, 4.4

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Windsor Connection

American (Philadelphia?), Windsor Chair, 1765–1780, 104 x 61 x 43 cm (41" x 24" x 17"). © Library Company of Philadelphia. (LCP-7)
My nephew just repainted our kitchen table and chairs. It occurred to me that the chairs are modern day versions of the Windsor chair. Our chairs even have the elegant h-stretcher joining the legs, and they do have a certain charm. I thought we could explore a real Windsor chair that comes from the Library Company of Philadelphia.

My chair: American, Side chair, ca. 2000. Maple, height: 101.6 cm (40").
There are varying theories about when the Windsor chair developed, but it seems to have been first made in large quantities in Buckinghamshire in England during the 1600s. The term “Windsor” chair relates to a story in which either King George I (reigned 1714–1727) or King George II (reigned 1727–1760) stopped at a house on the way to Windsor Castle during a storm and sat in such a chair. Finding it extremely comfortable, he ordered that they be made for royal residences. The chair is characterized by slender, turned spindles for the back; a saddle seat; and turned and splayed legs joined by an H-stretcher.

It is generally thought that American Windsor chairs were first produced in Philadelphia around 1725. Philadelphia was one of three furniture-making centers during the American colonial period (along with Boston and Baltimore). The chief difference between English and American Windsor chairs was the absence of the pierced back splat. The American chair back was composed entirely of spindles. A universal feature of the Windsor chair is the bow-shaped arm rail, composed of a single piece of bent wood.

This chair from the Library Company of Philadelphia is called a comb-back style, one of the most common styles since the Windsor chair was first produced. The section of spindles and crest rail resemble the combs women used to keep their hair in place. There were many variations in American Windsor chairs. One reason the Windsor chair was so popular in America, was the fact that it was light weight, fashionable, and could easily be carried from room to room.

Another popular style in America was the loop-back Windsor chair:

Joseph Henzy Sr. (1743–1796, United States), Windsor Chair, 1792. Maple (legs and stretchers), mahogany (arms), oak (arm supports), poplar (seat), white oak (box), hickory (spindles); 96.5 x 59.7 x 43 cm. © Library Company of Philadelphia. (LCP-6)

Studio activity:  Design a contemporary Windsor chair using charcoal, pencil, or black marker. Keep in mind the key elements of the style: the spindles, splayed turned legs, and continuous curving arm rail (or not if a side chair is preferred). Change the upper back of the chair to reflect a personal point of view about modern life, i.e. how furniture in the 21st century conforms to the human body.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; A Community Connection: 2.4; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 8; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Brueghel (Bruegel) Family

Jan Peeter (or Pieter) Brueghel (1628 to between 1664and 1684, Flanders), Flowers in a Figured Vase, ca. 1670s. Oil on canvas, 187 x 122 cm (73 5/8" x 48 1/16"). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-412)
 Having ancestry in northern Europe (Switzerland), I naturally gravitated toward Northern Renaissance art in college. I’m particularly fond of Flemish artists, because they reflect a similar unvarnished view of reality to that of Swiss artists of the Renaissance. I've always loved the Brueghel family of painters because of their genre scenes, but discovered a work in the Brooklyn Museum by a family member that is a glorious still life.

Jan Peeter, like his uncle Ambrosius (1617–1675) and his brother Abraham 1631–1690), was a master of still life painting. All three were descended from the famous Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569) by way of his son Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and his son Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1687), both of whom were primarily genre painters like Pieter the Elder. Jan Peeter, along with two brothers Abraham (1631–1690) and Jan Baptist (1647–1719), carried on a tradition of forging subject matter that was to become standard genre in Western art. While Pieter the Elder pioneered painting of everyday (often vulgar) life, Jan Peeter asserted the floral still life as accepted subject matter for art patrons.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (follower of) (Flanders), The Unfaithful Shepherd, ca. 1575–1600. Oil on wood, 61.6 x 86.7 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1982)

The Renaissance in Western Europe was a period when religious subject matter, which had dominated art since ca. 500 ce, began to decline as the major genre in painting and sculpture. Portraiture, landscape, and still life began to be accepted as “fine art” as the middle class improved in prosperity and began to patronize art, and as the Roman church’s power declined, especially after the Protestant Reformation (ca. 1523). Rather than preachy religious subjects or grandiose history subjects, middle class art patrons desired to see reflections of their everyday lives, especially in portraiture and still life.

Ironically, although still life and genre seem like worldly subjects, many held moralistic symbolism. Such lush floral bouquets as this were often associated with the idea of vanitas (Latin for vanity). They were meant to reflect on the fact that no matter how beautiful the physical world is, like the flowers, death claims human beings. In this work, the putti (child angels) also allude to the eventual end of life. Putti, or cherubim, were introduced into Christian art to represent innocence in contrast to sin. When linked to a vanitas subject, they reflect how sin is the downfall of the human/physical self.

Jan Peeter (or Pieter) Brueghel, Flowers in a Figured Vase (detail). (BMA-412)

Jan Peeter became a master in 1645 in Antwerp (Belgium) and stayed there until 1654. He moved to Rome after 1664 and died there before 1684. Like many northern artists, he wanted to immerse himself in classical and Italian art. This painting, which dates from his Roman period, reflects the classical influence in the vase, but the style is entirely in keeping with Dutch and Flemish Baroque still life of the period. It is interesting to note that Jan Peeter’s aunt Anna Brueghel (died 1656) was a painter and pupil of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), and she wed another of Rubens’ pupils, David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), who went on to become a celebrated painter of genre subjects who was particularly known for depicting poor Flemish people. I think I prefer the floral still life!

David Teniers the Younger, Peasants Carousing at a Farmhouse on a River Bank, 17th century. Oil on panel, 27 x 34 cm. © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-442)

Studio activity: A floral still life. Cut out different shapes of flowers using various colors of construction paper and arrange them so that they reflect a mood or attitude. Make a pencil drawing study first on a piece of construction paper (of any color desired) and then apply the cut out shapes to the outline. Use stronger values for shadows and flowers that recede from the viewer, or use colors of construction paper of approximately the same value.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, 4.19-20 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.11; A Personal Journey: 2.6; A Global Pursuit: 5.4, 7.4; Exploring Visual Design: 6, 7, 8; The Visual Experience: 16.2; Discovering Art History: 11.3