FURNITURE AS ART / ART AS FURNITURE

By Serge

Studio Furniture is the name given to artists' or craftspersons' creations that are one of a kind works, or at most very limited editions. The work may be in any form: lighting, chairs (the most difficult pieces to design), cabinets, candlesticks, tables and more. So too, the choices of materials are nearly infinite… beyond the traditional wood, we find fabulous works in steel, glass, plastic, even concrete! But first……

A BRIEF HISTORY

Contemporary Studio Furniture has deep roots in Eastern Pennsylvania, where a craftsman named Wharton Esherick began building furniture for himself and an ever-growing number of clients more than 50 years ago. What made Mr. Esherick's furniture different was its natural, organic, sculptural sense… rather than cut pieces of wood to fit a particular design element, he often let the natural form and / or imperfections in the wood dictate the final form of the piece. He built his home, (now a museum), in the same manner… the form of the staircase was dictated by the shape of the log he found. [Another, perhaps more recognizable craftsman to employ this technique was George Nakashima, who often planed and sanded his table tops to a perfectly sensual finish, only to have the edge terminate in a rough, natural break or knot.] This was in great contrast the Philadelphia School of furniture, which dictated precise curves and severe structure, carry-overs from colonial days. Wharton Esherick PHOTO: Wharton Esherick Museum

Some years later, Sam Maloof, now regarded by many as the greatest contemporary furniture maker, perfected and expanded upon Wharton Esherick's philosophy to created simple, but incredibly graceful pieces which are now sought by museums nationwide. Sam Maloof in turn educated a number of young "makers" (as the furniture artist likes to be known). The most prominent of these students to date is Wendell Castle. Sam Maloof PHOTO: Renwick Museum

Wendell Castle has become the most prominent "maker" in America today. He is to the field of studio furniture what Dale Chihuly is to the Studio Glass movement. Although Mr. Castle's designs began modestly, they soon showed a playfulness and willingness to defy convention. As an example, picture a formal hall table, finished exquisitely…. Now add a pair of gloves and a ring of keys to the surface… trying to pick up the keys and gloves, you realize that they are actually carved from the table top itself! Wendell created a number of these trompe-l'oeil pieces before embarking upon his current, organic / anthropomorphic style. His larger pieces now command as much as $100,000 or more!


In the early to mid- 1980's, Wendell Castle ran a school in upstate New York dedicated to studio furniture making. That school has spawned a great number of very talented makers, many of whom are now teaching at other universities and craft colleges across America. Those graduates of the Wendell Castle School are often referred to as the "Third Generation" of US Studio furniture makers. Their influence is being felt across the country through the current body of student makers. By all accounts, the most talented and prolific period for studio furniture is now upon us! Wendell Castle PHOTO: Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

Okay….. enough of the history lesson….. on to the present!

For instance in Detroit, they have a strong industrial heritage, and it is reflected with equal strength in much of the studio furniture that is produced there. Of the industrial metropolises in America, Detroit's studio furniture most directly reflects its lineage by the wide use of "found objects". Found objects are exactly that… cast-off pieces of forgotten or obsolete tooling, buildings, or products, which are discovered by an artisan and used in the creation of furniture or sculpture. Local masters of the "industrial style" (though not all rely upon found objects in their work) include Richard Bennett, Alex Porbe, Maxwell Davis, and the former members of Propeller Studio. PHOTO Richard Bennett - Cat Chair / Alex Porbe - Two Headed Lamp

Other regional influences become apparent in the works by artists from Northern Michigan.

Larry Fox, Bill Perkins, and many others create practical, reasonably-priced studio furnishings from Mother Nature's bounty… twigs, sticks, stones and more. Studio furniture in this style is more commonly referred to as "Rustic", which is not entirely correct. Rustic furniture is more accurately applied to older, more primitive furnishings, like the famous Adirondack chair. The new term for contemporary "sticks & twigs" furniture is "Lodge furniture".

Other localities also tend to produce works with a style or flavor that is derived from the area's past… in Philadelphia, for instance, much of the studio furniture being produced today draws upon the region's strong lumber tradition and continued availability of fine hardwoods. In addition, the traditions inspired by Sam Maloof and Wendell Castle continue on, filtered through new artistic visions. This organic influence is balanced against the East Coast / Colonial influence to produce some thoroughly inspired pieces by such artists as Rachel Fuld, Joel Urruty, Jack Larimore and others. PHOTO:
Joel Urruty - Doodle Dodd

WHY ME?

The simple answer is…. Why not?

There are a number of advantages to considering studio furniture for your home. For those who prefer individuality over mass production/consumption, it affords an opportunity to personalize your living environment. Art is something most of us desire in our lives, but typically it is thought of in terms of paintings and sculpture. Studio furniture is a blend of both the artistic, sculptural form and the practical, ergonomic considerations which are reality. We need tables… why not buy one which is individually sculpted? Indeed, choosing studio furniture over mass-produced goods often lends the opportunity to customize to your exact needs.

The selection of photos accompanying this article should make it plain that there are furniture makers to satisfy every taste, from the most contemporary to the most whimsical. A good number of makers specialize in reproductions of classic pieces - not represented here, but fabulous, nonetheless.

The commission process is not really as daunting as it seems. Working with a good dealer is key. It is the dealer's job not to sell you something, but to solve your problems. Consider: You need a bed. You desire something unique. You've been looking for the right piece… forever! No one knows better than you what style or effect you wish to achieve. Talk with your dealer. Bring in pictures of the room, or invite him or her to your home to truly get the feel for what you are trying to accomplish. (Simple so far, huh?) Explain your budget restrictions, if any. The dealer will then create a proposal of one or several artists' work from which to choose…. When you find one you like, sketches are created. Upon acceptance of a sketch, a deposit (usually 50 - 60% of the price) is paid, with the balance due upon completion. While some higher-end makers may have delivery dates of 12 or more weeks, most commissions can be completed within 4-6 weeks (often far less than ordering custom from a factory, especially those in Italy…). The result? Usually exactly what you were looking for… and then some! Due to the personal relationship that typically results from such a commission, you'll find yourself wanting to order another piece from your artist-friend!

BUT WHAT MAKES IT ART?

Well… studio furniture very often follows the same rules as fine art. Color theory, design theory, proportion, and cultural and historical references all have their place in fine studio furniture. Indeed, many pieces begin life as small sculptures, or maquettes, that the maker uses to check compliance with these guiding principles. In addition, furniture is very capable of evoking a reaction, an emotional response….. such is said to be the true purpose of fine art. Beyond these considerations, however, studio furniture must also contend with the ergonomic constraints of daily use! What a fantastic blending of talents!

If you need further proof of the growing importance of furniture in the art world, watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS… it's amazing the things people find in attics or yardsales, and what those items are worth 10 or more years later! If you haven't seen it, representatives of the top auction houses in the world give free appraisals on items ordinary folks bring in. Surprises are guaranteed!

For more information about studio furniture, or about The Furniture Society, a national organization supporting this field, contact Function+Art, located at 1046 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL. Their phone number is (312) 243-2780 or email.