Art Review: When Attitudes Become Chairs at Pizzuti Collection
“A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.”
– Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Time Magazine, Feb. 18, 1957
Given that Mies van der Rohe had a fair amount of success as both an architect and designer, we’d do well to defer to his dictum in these particular areas.
What the legendary designer didn’t share, and what is made clear throughout the Pizzuti Collection’s exceptional exhibition When Attitudes Become Chairs, is that a well-designed and well-executed chair looks easy. It looks self-evident, obvious even.
A well-designed chair melds form, function, and finish in such a way that the resulting object appears almost inevitable. To that point, Mies is right. That kind of clarity and balance is not an easy thing to achieve, especially with chairs.
That’s because we’re a tough audience when it comes to chairs. The scale of chairs, their ubiquity, and their rather intimate relationship to the human form makes us all chair experts (or is that armchair experts?). We know what a chair is supposed to look like, and we know what it’s supposed to do. Further, the chair’s relative simplicity leaves little margin for design error. Something that’s “a little off” can look “a lot off” when it comes to chairs.
Under these conditions, you’d expect chair designers to play it safe; to stick with the tried and true. Well, they don’t. The works on view in When Attitudes Become Chairs demonstrate that chair design is going places even ground-breaking modernists like Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Eero Saarinen could scarcely have imagined.
That’s partly because the visual vocabulary of design continues to expand, and partly because advances in technology offer more ways to manipulate materials. The designers in this exhibition are taking full advantage of both factors and creating chairs that push boundaries in every direction.
In doing so, they offer what might be described as “haute couture with chairs.” Many of the pieces on display are custom made, resisting mass production and the low cost it offers. Others employ cutting edge manufacturing processes that are prohibitively expensive. Still others are more or less handmade. All of them are stunning. These aren’t chairs that you and I will ever sit in, but the ground they break today and the advances they usher in will likely trickle down to the designs we see in our daily lives in the future.
In this spirit, guest curators Marc Benda and Glenn Adamson make a point to highlight the wide range of materials and forms available to today’s designers. The result is a sampling of contemporary designs that go beyond function, elevating an exhibition of chairs into something marvelously surreal.
Under the spell of so many enchanting textures, shapes and forms, it’s easy to forget you’re looking at chairs at all. At some point, the exhibition blurs into pure sculpture, transforming the collection into works that transcend function and present chairs in a whole new light.
Furniture design and construction have always been influenced by the materials and technology available at any given place and time. Benda and Adamson acknowledge this through expository placards that feature as much information about fabrication as inspiration.
It’s fascinating stuff (Did you know extreme cold can be used lock metal joints together?), and compelling evidence for the limitless possibilities available when art and science serve a common purpose.
When Attitudes Become Chairs is currently on view at the Pizzuti Collection through Jan. 20, 2019. Designer Chris Schanck will give a free artist talk on Thursday, Jan. 17 at 6 p.m.