PRINT April 1981

Not All Chairs Are Equal

CAN A CHAIR BE ART? On the face of it, this seems to be a simple question. But when we attempt to answer it, it becomes clear that we must deal with complex issues: hierarchies, contexts, taxonomies, definitions and even philosophies of art. This apparently simple question has no easy answer; instead, if there are answers, these would have to be formulated by the use of introductory conditional clauses. Yet even these conditional answers fan out into further complexities.

If we believe, for instance, that modernism implies a certain purification of each high-art category (i.e., that sculpture progresses to the purely sculptural, that painting moves to that which is purely painting) and if we further believe that distinctions between “high-art” non utilitarianism and the usability of applied art, “low art” or nonart are more than social conventions, in fact are distinctions to be defended and maintained, for whatever reasons (puritanical, economic, political, commercial, or merely because we are unable to tolerate doubt, diversity, or decategorization)—if we believe all this, then under no circumstances can a chair be art. A chair may be an antique, a design example, an historical artifact, a decorative item. But at least part of the use-meaning of a chair cannot be erased by placing it on a pedestal, or by using other traditional high-art cue-systems. From this viewpoint, a chair cannot be sculpture, cannot be “art,” in the honorific/normative sense.

This is a soothing formula. Yet it is one that very few would accept in all its purity; it is too reductive, restrictive, and it does not match experience. The same taste-system that seems to require this sobering, rather harsh dogma—a formalism derived from what was at first an attempt to be descriptive—usually accepts as art, at least on the levels of style and achievement, the De Stijl furniture of the Dutch cabinetmaker/designer/architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld. This is clearly contradictory.

But there is another way this could be considered, which I formulate here in the broadest terms. If it is believed that modernism is a complex phenomenon, only one aspect of which is concerned with categorical purity or self-criticism, and that a more important aspect of modernism is the testing and breaking down of categories, then a chair by Rietveld can indeed be art. In fact, the chair—or any other example of furniture-as-art—becomes quintessentially modernist. But here, too, the “answers” fan out into paradoxes, contradictions and zones of esthetic anxiety.

It does little good to maintain—emphasizing the descriptive rather than the normative use of the word “art”—that anything treated as a work of art, used as a work of art, bought and sold as art, perceived as art, thought about and written about as art, is art. This is initially therapeutic, but this recovery from language disease is replete with relapses and, sometimes, more complicated attacks. Value judgments are only temporarily forestalled. We may not be able to accept all proposed art as art. Not all chairs are equal. But what makes one chair more “art” than another? Is a chair sculpture still art when you are sitting on it? Is a Thonet bentwood rocker art? Does art require intention? If so, does the object itself disclose the intention?

Already this year there have been a number of shows of young, relatively unknown artists that indicate expressionist explorations of furniture art. A consideration of several significant exhibitions from last year will provide a context for these armchair musings: (1) A small exhibit of the furniture of Rietveld at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., generated considerable interest. (2) A New York City department store offered “Thonet at Lord & Taylor: A Vital Influence on Furniture Design, 1830–1980,” and, separately, Dover published Thonet Bentwood & Other Furniture: The 1904 Illustrated Catalogue. (3) Two historical art exhibitions included examples of what might be called usable art. (4) “Further Furniture,” curated by the critic Nicolas Calas at the Marian Goodman Gallery, presented an eccentric gathering of mostly recent furniture art.

The Rietveld exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford consisted of only 11 items: Red and Blue Chair, Sideboard, two High Back Chairs, Hanging Lamp, End Table, Berlin Chair, Crate Chair, Zig-Zag Chair and a pair of Steltman Chairs. Yet Art in America featured the End Table on its November cover and printed an article, by Scott Burton, formerly an art critic but now an artist known for his furniture sculptures. The fact of the matter is that Rietveld’s furniture is legendary, and the opportunity to see even 11 items—most of them “classics,” most executed in the ’60s from earlier designs—was not to be missed. Is it the contemporary interest in usable art—chairs and tables, lights, screens, clothes, jewelry—that allows and perhaps forces us to take a new look at the works of Rietveld, Sonia Delaunay and others?

The clarity and cleverness of Rietveld’s neoplastic design is startling. The Crate Chair is to my eyes the only out-and-out visual failure (“. . made of poor quality wood such as would have been used for packing crates, to be sold in prepackaged units which could be purchased and easily assembled with screws by the buyer,” writes Phillip Johnston—who, please note, is not Philip Johnson the architect—in his helpful catalogue notes1).

I decided to throw caution to the wind and received permission to sit on all the chairs, excepting the High Back Chair labeled as loaned by the artist Christo. Has art criticism been reduced to this—judging artworks by the seat of one’s pants? I suspected that permission was granted as a trade-off for my not revealing the name of the artist who had loaned most of the furniture, but a skilled art detective need only examine the Wadsworth Atheneum permanent collection of contemporary art to discover the name of the mysterious artist.

My other suspicions were confirmed. These are very difficult chairs, difficult even to sit on. The Red and Blue Chair is particularly uncomfortable. I know enough about chair design to realize that no chair can be designed that will be comfortable for everyone.2 We are not a uniform lot—one person’s ideal pitch is another’s slump or spill. Rietveld, however, designed chairs to reform posture, to induce alertness. As handsome as his works are as sculptural forms, as chairs for actual use they are—like much modernist design and architecture—totalitarian.

The Zig-Zag Chair, now in mass production and available at many classy furniture outlets and the chair that Burton calls “perhaps Rietveld’s greatest single piece,”3 is particularly lethal. The sharp-looking edge of the very short seat will not actually sever the tendons of the back of the knee—the edge only looks dangerous, and the backs of your knees clear it by more than several inches; but it looks as if this might happen. The correspondence of the optic and the haptic—one of the strengths of furniture as art—here produces a totally disagreeable effect. Chair art induces an imaginative participation even if one is not allowed to sit in or on the art. In the Zig-Zag Chair, as in the Red and Blue Chair, the High-Back Chair and the Berlin Chair, the message is, adapt to me—or else.

Rietveld’s chairs are not chairs to read in or watch television from. They are not even chairs to sit in while socializing. They are either purely visual objects or unfriendly disciplinary instruments. They are chairs designed to keep you alert while you are lectured at. The design idea and/or the sculptural ideas (ideals?) take precedence over human use. If art is punishment, if art is nonutilitarian, then these chairs, alas, are art.

Human beings are not geometrically angular. The curves and general comfort of Thonet bentwood chairs therefore have the edge over Rietveld’s neoplasticism although Thonet’s designs are no less sculptural. They are also older than Rietveld’s, and have been in production for a long time. Thonet achieved his goal of producing inexpensive, good design by using techniques of mass production. The new reproduction of Thonet’s 1904 catalogue—even more than the Lord & Taylor display—impresses with its plenitude. Almost endless variations could be achieved by using a key process of steam-molding wood, and a system of basic components that could be assembled with only a few screws.

From all evidence, Thonet did not intend his products as art per se. We may, however, treat certain selected examples as such. The famous rocker is indeed expressive; moreover, it does embody a time and a place, a culture. Placed on pedestals or platforms, any number of Thonet cafe chairs could function quite well as esthetic objects (or subjects). Thonet chairs need only be thought of as multiples to flesh out the transformation of them into art.

The Sonia Delaunay retrospective at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery featured this artist’s usable art from the ’20s. I felt her paintings to be of questionable value, but the clothing, hangings, ceramics and fabrics she designed to earn a living for herself and her husband Robert were entirely convincing. In a broader survey, “The Avant-Garde in Russia,” which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum and traveled to the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., some eminently wearable Constructivist clothing designs were recreated.

Although Nicolas Calas’ selections in “Further Furniture” were marred by the inclusion of too many works that are simply not furniture but rather comments on furniture, there were enough works to indicate that something most interesting and problematic is happening in art: Christopher Sproat’s Tone Chair, Scott Burton’s Circle/Square/Triangle Table, Robert Guillot’s Reclining Chair. (But where were R. M. Fischer’s zany lamps?)

It was amusing to see a Sol LeWitt coffee table, but this brought up another category: furniture, like Mondrian’s orange crate pieces, that artists make for themselves. More thought-provoking (and more dangerous) was the inclusion of Dakota Jackson’s beautiful Revolving Glass Table. Jackson is known primarily as a furniture-maker.

Is furniture art—and all other forms of usable art—just another trend, another ploy to produce this year’s art commodity? Or is there a deeper meaning to the proliferation of lamps, chairs, tables? Are the critical differences between art and craft and between art and design being demolished, forgotten or merely stretched? Is furniture art modernist or not?

It should be clear where this writer’s sympathies lie.4 I am for a modernism that is complex and a modernism that continues to be concerned with exploring and expanding the definitions of art. I am for a modernism that has something to do with experiment and change—even if that change is initially only one of taste, of decategorization, and includes the increased use of what might be called esthetic doubt.

Is furniture art just another oxymoron, as many have claimed about “usable art” and “Decorative Art”? These terms are oxymorons only if one insists that art by its very nature cannot serve noncontemplative functions, cannot be other than self-referential. At this point such insistence is patently irrational, or simply a last-ditch defense. It is possible for an artwork or any other object to belong to several categories simultaneously, but this may not be recognized by the single-minded.

It is possible—and probably necessary—to disagree with Nicolas Calas. “Why would vanguard artists experiment with furniture, a category of objects highly utilitarian, if it were not to challenge our confidence in their function?”5 he asks. My answer is that the best of furniture art or usable art does not question function, but questions art.

John Perreault is senior art critic for the Soho News.


1. Phillip Johnston, In Focus Gerrit Thomas, Designer, Hartford, Conn., Wadsworth Atheneum, 1980, p. 13.

2. See Peter Bradford and Barbara Prete, Chair, The Current State of the Art . . . , New York: Thomas Crowell, 1978.

3. Scott Burton, “Furniture Journal Rietveld,” Art in America, November, 1980, p. 108.

4. Immodesty requires me to mention my forthcoming traveling exhibition called “Usable Art.” My catalogue essay addresses the area of usable art more specifically.

5. Nicolas Calas, “Further Furniture,” four-page handout available during the exhibition.