Furniture of a New Order
Furniture inhabits both the world we choose to call real and the world of our imagination.
So begins curator Suzanne Delehanty’s essay, Furniture of Another Order from 1977. Nothing seems closer to the truth these days as so many of us spend hours traversing the real and virtual spaces of our desktops, slipping between the two in a constant state of shared reality. I came across Delehanty’s essay many years ago, drawn to how artists, architects, and designers approached the making—and imagining—of furniture, at times very differently. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania had beaten many to the punch with the exhibition memorably titled Improbable Furniture, curated by Delehanty (her essay is published in the exhibition catalogue). In it, she called for a reexamination of this paradigm of quotidian objects through the lens of work by artists who have at some point situated furniture within their output, as in the work of Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Kienholz, and Yayoi Kusama, or made it the very underpinnings of their practice, as in Scott Burton, for example. One of my favorite works in the show was Barbara Zucker’s Alice Inland from 1966, an oversized white wooden chair, nine feet high and crescent topped, that as Delehanty notes in the catalogue, “plays upon the viewer’s conscious and unconscious modes of thought.” The image of the work in the catalogue definitely plays with mine, generating discomforting echoes of “Off with her head!” as well as “Someone’s been sitting in my chair.”
Improbable Furniture appealed to me for its promiscuous take on furniture as the subject, and in some cases what determined the form, of the works on view. As Delehanty writes, furniture “can slip from the mundane to the metaphysical,” from objects that represent the world we inhabit to objects that through their scale, mode of production, and relationship to the body have become a never-ending means of experimentation, especially so in the case of the chair. Architects have throughout history also been drawn to furniture as a practical way to further probe human behavior and question social norms. Take as examples Gerrit Rietveld’s De Stijl chairs and Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand’s chaise longues and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair from the early part of the twentieth century, or Charles and Ray Eames’ plywood versions from the 1940s. These now iconic designs grapple with everything from issues of form, production, lifestyle, an economy of means, and even hygiene. Chairs in particular continue to prove a never-ending source of inspiration, fascination, and fetish that’s hard to shake even in this saturated landscape. It seems there remains much to say.
When, for example, American architect Frank Gehry launched in the 1970s his now well-known line of chairs, ottomans, and chaise longues constructed from laminated cardboard, a utilitarian packing material found across the US, he called attention to his original intent, to create a more affordable, yet refined range. Once described as “paper furniture for penny pinchers” by the New York Times, given their lower price point (a lounge chair and ottoman were reported to be about $80 and under $30, respectively, when they launched in 1972) and availability at department stores such as Bloomingdales in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, they are now coveted by collectors and in museum collections worldwide. More recently, Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye released his Washington series of chairs in 2013 as companions to the building he designed for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The chair designs excavated references from both Africa and America, including the trade practices of the first African American slaves freed in the Southern states of America, who went on to create the visual iconography of towns such as Charleston and Louisiana. Adjaye’s team retraced the patterns of the architectural detailing of bronze balustrades and screens for homes, employing parametric modeling tools to generate a new articulation of these forms that shifts in density across both the seat and back of the chairs, to accommodate the body.
Since its founding in 2014, MANIERA Gallery has continued to provide opportunities for inventive minds to navigate between the realms of architecture, design, and art. Working to give space for ideas that expand current discourse, they recently invited Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of New York-based architecture studio MOS, to develop some objects for the gallery, with an open brief. The chair, or seating, again became a focus for their explorations. As Sample notes, “We’re interested in making things, not buying things. If we need a seat, we make it. If we need a table, we make it.” Furniture design has long been a part of MOS’s practice. For their design for MANIERA, they determined to investigate American approaches to furniture making. They focused on what they call “a brutal economy of scale,” no doubt in response to the contemporary moment, with the need to conserve resources, be mindful of waste, and treat invention as critical. Turning to Shaker furniture as inspiration, they have designed a number of pieces, including Baskets No. 1–3, multipurpose stools/baskets/seats, sturdy enough to sit on, stand on, and to hold objects.
The Shakers were nineteenth-century America’s largest and most well-known communal utopian society, boasting thousands of Brothers and Sisters in the early 1800s. Today only a handful remain, and yet their legacy is long. Their work ethic, high-quality output, and objects made to last are concerns that continue to have currency today. MOS’s design was also motivated by the exceptional craftsmanship of Shaker objects, especially the baskets that were a staple, made with an open hexagonal weave and sturdy enough to be used to harvest fruit or drain cheese curds. With its utility and stripped-down yet elegant form, Baskets No. 1–3 exemplify the Shaker code of practice to make something useful and necessary, but also beautiful, with any decorative elements part of the design and supporting the function of the piece. The bolts that punctuate them are both functional and are the only decoration, other than color, on the piece. Available in a range of sizes and scales, the baskets/stools can seat one or two people side by side. The only thing missing is two handles, which would have governed a Shaker basket, making it easier for a pair of workers to hoist a heavy load. Rather than wood, MOS’s baskets are made from a latticework of metal strips outsourced from fabricators who send the finished parts to MOS to do the final assembly. “We have the last say,” affirms Sample. Like the Shakers who were also fastidious about quality, they live with their designs, including “failures and mistakes,” which Meredith says they learn from. With an enthusiasm for a hands-on approach that was shared by the Shaker brethren, they test out their work in their studio and home to ensure that it is fit for its purpose.
MOS’s interest in weaving techniques was born a number of years ago when Sample made what she calls tape blankets. Living in the Netherlands, and without the time and access to a loom to weave in the traditional way, she acquired rolls of double-stick colored tape. She would peel off the tape and create blankets by sticking different pieces of tape together in a crisscross formation. “It became like a sort of weaving project,” she recalls. “It was an immediate, precise form of making something, unlike architecture. I liked that.” Sample’s approach speaks to the studio’s current fascination with working with what’s available, whether materials or manufacturing processes.
Object No. 11 (Peg Bench) and Object No. 12 (Peg Chair), also for MANIERA, are other cases in point. They underscore MOS’s satisfaction in finding off the rack components that they can repurpose for new uses. This time they appropriated thick wooden broomstick handles, cutting them down to size for the back and legs to create whimsical, yet practical designs whose material origins are a part of their appeal. Other pieces include Object No. 16 (Peg Rail), a reinterpreted Shaker design, typically hung on the wall and used for hanging up coats, keys, scarves, and other quotidian stuff, as a way to organize their communal homes. Updated by MOS, their wooden design can be screwed together in different arrangements to meet individual and collective needs. Another common object found in Shaker homes is the wood stove, which MOS has rethought with their Wood Stove No.1, made from simple component parts, such as a fire box fitted to a table, for outdoor gatherings. “One of the main values of the Shakers was a precise sense of utility, every object had a specific function” says Sample, “The objects we make typically have multiple uses – legs can be back rests, stoves can be tables, baskets can be stools, or something we haven’t imagined.”
The Objects of One Part, No. 3, like their baskets, are multi-functional objects. The pieces are made from identical perforated metal panels bolted together. The rounded form, reminiscent of a child’s toy, allows many different configurations, such as a stool, chair, table, or bench. Finally, the sectional lounge chair Object No. 17 (Circular Bench) is also made from metal and looks as if it was inspired by pew seating in a Meeting House. Erected from corrugated aluminum panels, it can be aggregated to form a circle or semicircle, making it fitting for congregating indoors or out. What MOS’s collection of works has in common is the rigor with which they approach their designs based on an economy of construction, an attitude that finds an affinity with the work of the late Italian designer Enzo Mari. MOS, like Mari, put emphasis on the value of objects that have become subsumed into our daily lives, their origins forgotten or taken for granted.
Just as artists shift perspectives and open our imaginations, design too has the potential to reinterpret the familiar in ways that not only offer new typologies of objects that prompt us to question and even modify behavior, but also open space in our minds for new thinking about the physical and metaphysical relationships we have with the built environment. As MOS has shown, rather than improbable furniture, their intuitive designs are resolutely probable.