Walking into a room of one-of-a kind chairs is not unlike walking into a party of unfamiliar people. Some chairs look striking, but make you feel uncomfortable. Others require close inspection to seem intriguing. You might consider the host of "Pull Up A Chair" to be a bold magenta variation of the Adirondack chair. Oversized and open-armed, it sits ready to receive guests and make them feel well provided for.
This exhibition of art furniture -- also known as studio furniture -- at Meredith Gallery on Charles St. ranges from the patterned paint, high tech work of Tom Loesser -- his chair also folds up for wall display -- to Jeremy Singley's delicately shaped rocking chair. Andy Buck's couch seems inspired by ancient Egypt, Andrew Fiscus's lounge chair seems modeled after a plow. Visions come in chrome, steel, leather, fiberboard, rosewood, and ebonized cherry. It's a show that demonstrates how art furniture can provide fresh perspectives on such subjects as tradition, comfort, even American culture.
The new generation of American furniture artists -- most of them university trained -- consider the cultural notion of furniture to be as important as its function, according to Edward S. Cooke Jr., assistant curator of American decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Wander through the exhibition, however, and you'll find that the art of a chair is still as much a matter of the wisdom of the body as of the intellect.
"Everyone who judges this show has a point of view, which is a benefit to the artists," says gallery director Judith Lippman. "People's reactions [to art furniture] are much more immediate and democratic than to other forms. They say, 'I like it!' or 'It's ugly' or 'It's uncomfortable.'"
"I would much prefer someone to see my work and say, 'I hate it, I can't stand that color!' or 'It's so wonderful I can't do without it!' That's much better than, 'Oh, that would fit in fine with everything else I have,'" says Henry Barrow, the only Maryland artist in the show.
His piece, the magenta Adirondack chair, has raised a few eyebrows. Entitled "The Throne of Queen Koo," it displays a bookplate-sized painting of a female torso which refers to Koo Stark, the British ex-porn queen and ex-girlfriend of Prince Andrew.
"I'm an Anglophobe," Barrow explains. "When all the tabloids were reporting that Andrew was having dalliances with Koo, I used to have these fantasies about how wonderful it would be if he became king and she was queen. It would have been the first time that most British men could say they had seen the queen naked. It would have severely tested the country's sense of humor . . . and I think it would have done them some good."
Barrow, 45, has created furniture for the past 20 years or so. He works on commissions and showpieces at a studio in Glen Echo Park where he also teaches furniture design one night a week. After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1967 with a degree in art and anthropology, he went to Africa to work for the Peace Corps and to travel. When he began his art career, he worked first in photography.
"It was good training for me visually, but it was a little too elusive. Definitely not concrete enough," he says. "The engineering possibilities of furniture interested me, how to put things together . . . I'm very interested in three-dimensional things and I like handling materials and I found that I'd never run out of ideas. Furniture is basically a sculptural medium."
Some of the pieces in "Pull Up A Chair" look -- and feel -- as if they should remain on a pedestal rather than being used as seating. Not so with Barrow's chair. He grew up on a Howard County farm with a porch filled with lots of big chairs.
"You can have your cup of tea on one arm of this chair and do your homework on the other. I have really tested out this chair; I've sat in it for five hours at a time."
Barrow spent quite a while on the design, too. Praising the Adirondack chair as one of the world's most comfortable, he still took apart a lot of chairs in order to find ways to improve the chair's construction.
In art furniture circles, Barrow is perhaps best known as a colorist. All of the pieces he produces are painted in surprising and memorable color combinations; he reports that the turquoise of a recent table was so well tuned that half the people called it green and the other half called it blue. Barrow says he gets the punch from exploring color that other artists get from trying new materials. In fact, designing furniture has become a way to express his new color thoughts.
Barrow makes more tables and sidepieces than chairs.
"I don't believe there have been that many great designs for chairs," he says. "I also think it takes a lot more research and model building than any other kind of furniture. Maybe that's why I went back to an old form -- out of frustration."