Unusual chairs, sofas tell a story at Telfair Museum's Art of Seating exhibit

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 21, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT: "Sitting in Savannah: Telfair Chairs and Sofas"; The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design

    WHERE: Telfair Academy, 121 Barnard St., Savannah

    WHEN: through May 19.

    COST: $20

    DETAILS: www.telfair.org

When one mentions great work of art, sculptures like Rodin's "The Thinker" or Michelangelo's "David" or paintings such as Picasso's "Guernica" or Grant Wood's "American Gothic" often come to mind.

Chairs and sofas do not.

Fair or not, the things we sit on are rarely thought of as having been purposefully or pain-stakingly designed, let alone as art, focusing instead on their utility.

A pair of exhibits recently unveiled at the Telfair Academy in Savannah hopes to change that.

Earlier this month, the museum opened "The Art of Seating: 200 years of American Design," a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville that focuses on how the design of American chairs has evolved over two centuries, and "Sitting in Savannah," an exhibit showcasing the Telfair's own collection of early 19th century chairs and sofas.

Both shows highlight the somewhat obscure but no less important "decorative arts," said Tania Sammons, senior curator of decorative arts and historic sites for Telfair Museums. The group also oversees the historic Owens-Thomas House and the Jepson Center, a contemporary art museum on nearby York Street.

"These are objects that we use in everyday life," Sammons said. "One of the things I really like about these two exhibitions is that we are respecting these pieces by putting them aside and in a position where they can be viewed and regarded as works of art. Because that's exactly what they are."

'PERHAPS HE SAT IN THIS CHAIR'

The double parlor room at the Telfair, a museum housed in the 17th century, neoclassical mansion built by the son of former Georgia Gov. Alexander Telfair, is full of sofas and chairs, all of which sit atop white pedestals less than a foot off the ground.

While the room may have the look of a furniture store showroom, what occupies the space tells an important story -- the story of the Telfair family and really, Sammons said, the story of Savannah.

There is, for example, the ornately decorated set of rosewood-grained chairs once owned by the Owens family that likely occupied a place in their home in 1849 when President James K. Polk came calling.

"He dined with the family and perhaps he sat in one of these chairs," Sammons said. "This is just one of so many pieces that we have on display here and at the Owens-Thomas House that showcases our decorative arts holdings. All of these items tell a story and informs who we are and where we came from."

For being hundreds of years old -- some of the pieces date back to the 1760s -- most of the chairs and sofas are in remarkable condition, having been lovingly cared for by the museum's staff who, Sammons said, sought to preserve the story behind each piece.

She referenced a small children's chair nearby, the paint that once adorned its top rail worn away by time and use.

"Our charge is to do minimal work on a piece because the wear here that you see tells a story," Sammons said. "Someone's been moving that chair around. This was a well-loved, used chair. It has a story of its own."

These stories might have gone untold had it not been for an offer from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville.

TWO CENTURIES OF DESIGN

Sammons had long sought to do an exhibit on the Telfair's chairs and sofas, but it wasn't until the museum in Jacksonville approached the museum about "The Art of Seating," using pieces from the Jacobsen Collection of American Art, that she felt the timing was right.

That exhibit, which opened March 1 and ends May 19, focuses on how American furniture design has evolved over the past two centuries.

Through a pair of glass doors, the exhibit begins with chairs similar to the ones on display in the parlor downstairs but also includes an Egyptian revival chair built in 1875 to an unusual chair made using ivory, brightly-colored silk satin and the horns of Texas cattle by designer Wenzel Friedrich in 1890.

Like the Telfair's exhibit, each of the show's 40 pieces has a story to tell about a moment in American history -- there is an arm chair from the U.S. House of Representatives built in 1857 -- or the designer himself.

Take, for example, the salmon-colored, enameled steel chair designed by the famed architect Francis Lloyd Wright in 1938 for the Johnson Wax Co. in Racine, Wis.

The chair originally had three legs -- one in the front and two in the back -- but the company's employees kept falling out of them, prompting its executives to insist Wright redesign the chair.

"He thought the chair had been designed correctly but begrudgingly returned to the Johnson Wax Co., sat in one of the chairs and fell out of it," Sammons said. "He modified the design."

Also on display are works by Frank Gehry and more unconventional pieces that blur the line between furniture and sculpture, like a wooden bench designed by Laurie Beckerman in 2010 that evokes the Ionic order, one of the early systems of classical Greek architecture.

"This exhibit really enforces the idea that a chair and a sofa can be a work of art," Sammons said. "And I've seen people view these exhibits and respond to it that way."

And while some visitors connect the chairs and sofas with artwork, there may be others who see the items simply as furniture and seek to test the comfortability of the chairs.

"I've not caught anyone and I hope no one else here has either," she said, looking almost panicked at the notion.

Sammons said some people, however, have been interested in filling their own living rooms with the historic furniture.

"We've had some offers but we make it pretty clear to people that we're a museum, not an antique shop. We're preserving these items for posterity."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

RELATED CONTENT

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design

Upcoming exhibits at Telfair Museums

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