Oct 28, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This weekend I was finally able to venture out to my local art museum again. It felt amazing to see art in real life once more. Soaking in the brushstrokes on a canvas or strolling around a sculpture is food for the soul. Having gone months without curated inspiration, I felt giddy as I passed through each gallery! For this week’s feature I thought I’d do something different and pair two of my favorite artistic pieces with designer chairs. I hope you’ll find this exercise as fun to read as it was to write.
Spirited shapes | Alexander Calder’s La Grand vitesse with the Pelican Chair by Finn Juhl & Niels Vodder
Despite the flurry of advancements during the early 20th century, the world of interior design was still defined by certain rules. For example, if a chair was upholstered standard practice dictated that the legs weren’t noticeable and the cushions were large. These were unwritten guidelines that had been respected for decades. But everything changed in 1940 when the Pelican Chair burst onto the scene. While the aesthetic may not seem glaring to our modern perspective, it was initially perceived as bizarre by the establishment. (For context, the most generous critique dubbed the creation as “most peculiar.”) Here was a chair that celebrated its legs (which was off-putting enough), but then the legs themselves were stocky, rather than quietly elegant. In addition, the chair rejected lush cushions in favor of thin padding that closely hugged every curve. It was like a piece of abstract sculpture and became the immediate focal point of any room it inhabited. This was one baby you definitely could not put in a corner! Funnily enough, Juhl and Vodder initially designed the chair for modest apartment living. They saw the chair as something that would hold its own among a growing abstract art collection. As it always works with trailblazers, their vision was ahead of its time. For Juhl and Vodder they were about ten years too early. Following the end of the war, the world embraced sculptural chairs and the Pelican received its overdue entry into the pantheon of amazing designs.
Nearly three decades after the Pelican strode into the spotlight, a sculpture was being assembled in Michigan. The artist of said sculpture was Alexander Calder, who had skyrocketed to fame decades earlier thanks to his whimsical mobiles. Calder is one of my all-time favorites and I’m convinced you can’t have a bad day if you’re in the presence of his artwork. Calder, with his background in engineering and artistic pedigree, naturally saw the world different from most. It was during a trip to visit fellow artist Piet Mondrian that his journey into kinetic art began. Like Juhl and Vodder his artistic creations weren’t initially embraced due to their innovative nature. (In fact, the piece I’ve chosen to pair with the Pelican Chair remains controversial to this day!)
Calder’s installations have been paired with artwork before. Did you know his Mercury Fountain was displayed near Guernica in the Spanish Pavilion for the 1937 World’s Fair? When I think about the power of Guernica, I can see how visiting Calder’s moving sculpture first helped the visitor get into the mental space to ingest such an emotional piece!
Art will show a new side of itself each time you encounter it, but great art will uncover something new about you. I’ve not had the pleasure of sitting in the Pelican chair, but I’m told it’s like an embrace that accommodates whatever position you choose. Pretty cool! I’ve had the chance to visit and re-visit Calder’s work and, like the chair, each experience is unique. Similar to the Pelican Chair, Calder’s sculptures are living in their own way as they respond to the world. Tell me, dear reader, do you see these two as a compatible artistic pairing?
Pure movement | The Zig Zag Chair by Gerrit Rietveld, Metz & Co. with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp
The way the human body navigates its environment has been a source of artistic exploration from the days of da Vinci. This artistic pairing celebrates that history and, in particular, focuses on the matter of balance. We’ll start with the furniture. The Zig Zag Chair is deceptively simple – a design reduced to its purest state. But a highly-engineered foundation rests just below the surface. The genius is in its construction. As a person sits on the chair, his or her weight reacts against the structural reinforcements and the chair stays upright. More precisely, the cantilever of the zig is supported by the counterweight of the bottom zag. Looking at the chair, it’s hard to believe it was made in 1934, everything about its crisp silhouette screams futuristic.
The backstory about the chair is quite interesting. The year was 1930 and the executives at a Dutch department store (Metz & Co.) contacted Rietveld, in the hopes of making a chair for mass production. I’m not sure this was exactly what they had in mind, but we can all be grateful for their patronage! Ahead of its time by a few decades, this well-crafted chair paved the way for the Eames molded plywood chairs and the Panton Chair from the 1960s. What I love about Rietveld’s work is its bold celebration of form. There’s no pretense here, just good construction and clarity of purpose. That statement could also be applied to Duchamp’s masterpiece.
Painted in 1912, it was also perceived as too futuristic for its time. Like the chair, there’s no room for frivolity. The body is reduced to its purest elements (cones and cylinders) and, through the use of shading and brushstrokes, conveys movement. Everything about this bold piece proved to be controversial. The style itself was jarring to the public, the title was offensive as people felt showing a nude in motion was disrespectful, and the connection to emerging movements was unsettling to the artistic elite. Some scholars feel Duchamp never got over the sting of this initial rejection, but one also must consider how this experience fueled his later work. Despite the early criticism, there is a consensus that Duchamp is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
It’s always hard to edit a complex idea down to its fundamental underpinnings. In both the Zig Zag Chair and Duchamp’s work, both artists were exploring how to express the complex action of movement in a clean way. For Duchamp it was capturing three-dimensional movement in a static, two-dimensional frame. For Rietveld it was maintaining austerity under pressure. While their findings are shown in different mediums, there is a kinship here. Tell me dear reader, what do you think?