You’re going to want to sit down for this one.
The newest addition to the Virginia Historical Society is an exhibition called “The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design,” on display from Feb. 20 through April 17. Forty-three chairs ranging from the early 19th century to the present were chosen for their aesthetic beauty and role in history from social, economic, political and cultural standpoints.
Throughout this exhibition, chairs are shown as ostentatious artwork, practical furniture meant for everyday use and everything in between. “A chair is not just a place to rest your backside,” says Paul A. Levengood, president and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society, who led a media preview Friday morning. “It is also an opportunity for design.”
One of the first chairs on display at the entrance to the exhibition is the House of Representatives Chamber Arm Chair, designed in 1857 by Thomas Ustick Walter and manufactured by Hammitt Desk Manufacturing Co. Walter, a highly accomplished architect recognized for the construction of the U.S. Capitol, purposefully designed these chairs to be large and throne-like. “He designed furniture desks and chairs to go in [the House Chamber] that would not be overwhelmed by the volume created in this giant space,” Levengood says. This piece is a perfect start to the exhibition because symbolizes U.S. solidarity and the importance of American character. The intricate design features the nation’s stars and stripes, and the shield at the top dons olive and oak boughs, signifying peace and strength.
In stark contrast to the grandiose Chamber Arm Chair is The Navy Chair, a simple design of brushed aluminum made by Emeco (aka the Electrical Machine and Equipment Co.) in 1944. This chair has great historical importance because the Navy specifically requested a durable chair that would withstand the exposure to saltwater and sea air during World War II. To prove its durability, the manufacturer actually threw it out of a sixth-floor window. “Wartime brings innovation,” Levengood says of the timeless chair that is still manufactured today.
Whether meant for Congress or the Navy, Queen Victoria or President McKinley, style or comfort, “The Art of Seating” has it all. It is a story of American stability, even for the chairs made of fiberglass, corrugated cardboard and Texas longhorns.
“Because it spans essentially the entire history of the United States as a country, this is a good history lesson as well as a lesson of form and function,” Levengood says.
The collection includes pieces by John Henry Belter, George Hunzinger, Herter Brothers, Stickley Brothers, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Frank Gehry, among others.
“The Art of Seating” was organized by Florida’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville in collaboration with the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen Ph.D. Foundation and is toured by International Arts & Artists, based in Washington, D.C. Diane Jacobsen will be speaking at a ticketed event at the Virginia Historical Society on March 19. Tickets to the exhibition are $20 (free for VHS members).