Magnificent, if miniature, obsession Home: Collectors of tiny chairs care fiercely about their hobby -- so fiercely that the book about it is called 'Chairmania.'

December 24, 1995|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Gina Leavey, a Lutherville interior designer, has an obsession that began small and has continued small, even though it's gradually taking over her house.

She's a collector of miniature chairs, and she has a fierce love for her little beauties.

"I've never gone miniature-chair shopping," she says. "They just show up where I go and say, 'Take me home.' They call to me."

You could label almost any collecting a mania. True collectors are, after all, driven by their desire to own whatever they collect. But a book has been written about this particular obsession, and, yes, the book is called "Chairmania." (It's the inspiration for the exhibit of the same name currently at the National Building Museum in Washington.)

Until Abrams published this charming little book last year, Mrs. Leavey thought she was alone in her love of miniature chairs. In fact, such notables as Mary Tyler Moore and Joanne Barwick, former editor of House Beautiful, are fellow collectors.

Mrs. Leavey's chairmania started about four years ago. An artist as well as an interior designer, she had bought some unpainted doll's chairs and had decorated them in a pastel, folk art style. "In doing that," she says, "I came to love the chairs themselves."

She didn't consciously start collecting, but wherever she went she would come across miniature seats -- sometimes they weren't even for sale, but she would talk the store into selling them anyway. In the Harry and David's store in Oregon there was a pretty little painted chair used in a display of jams and jellies. It was wound round with flowers and small birds and had jars sitting on and around it.

"Don't you want any of the jams and jellies?" said the saleswoman in disbelief.

"No," said Mrs. Leavey. "Just the chair."

But the most fertile grounds for collectors are flea markets and antiques stores, not food-gift shops. The uninitiated might think that most diminutive seats are doll-house furniture. Not so. Mrs. Leavey's collection, which now numbers around 100 chairs, consists of very few replicas for dolls. George Beylerian, author of "Chairmania" and owner of the chairs on display at the National Building Museum, has almost none.

One of the things that make miniature chairs such a delightful collectible is their variety. Some are souvenirs. Others are furniture salesmen's samples and promotional miniatures (advertising something that has nothing to do with furniture).

There are china chairs that are actually salt and pepper shakers and chairs that are Christmas ornaments. Some are pipe holders. Key chains. Pin cushions. Most wonderful of all are the art-furniture miniatures -- flights of fantasy made from unexpected materials like Tabasco bottles and pencils. They are tiny works of art.

These days collectibles are big business, and collecting many of them is a cut-and-dried process: You go to the designated outlet and buy another in the series of wooden villages or designer dolls.

But with miniature chairs, you don't know what's out there or where you're going to find it. Perhaps it's a beautiful antique doll's highchair. Or a funky Day of the Dead chair from Mexico, with two little skulls on top, that you picked up at a Fells Point gift shop. Or a chair that was part of Woodward & Lothrop's Easter display. (Mrs. Leavey talked the department store into letting her have it for $20.) Some are no bigger than your thumb. Others a life-size baby doll could perch on.

Mrs. Leavey treats her miniature chairs as part of her home's decor. Chairs are nestled among knickknacks on a shelf and on a windowsill, hung on the Christmas tree, lined up on the stairs. An offbeat little chair made by her son Jason, age 10, out of tickets from Sports, the video and game place in Cockeysville, has a place of honor. (It was inspired by a ticket chair in "Chairmania.")

Mrs. Leavey's is a very different sort of collection from the one at the National Building Museum. Many of the miniatures in the "Chairmania" exhibit are valuable; and all, of course, are categorized, labeled and under glass. George Beylerian, formerly producer of real-life chairs, says he was "professionally attracted" to miniature chairs when he began his collection some seven years ago.

"Chairs are complex," he explains, "They can be many things. They have ramifications about power, about comfort. Who wants to collect end tables?"

Comfort and power, in fact, are two of the categories in the exhibit. In "Seats of Power" you will see a miniature promotion for the King Tutankhamen Exhibition (gold leaf over resin, 7 inches tall). An ornate Chinese palace chair (one of a pair) is from the early 19th century. There's an Empire-style throne worthy of Napoleon, circa 1803-1819.

But consider other meanings of power: Here also is the elevated chair of a lifeguard (painted metal), a barber's chair and a porcelain toilet from Japan that looks as if it might be a souvenir ashtray.

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