When furniture becomes sculpture - and vice versaby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
There's an old joke about a gallery visitor sitting down to rest weary feet, only to be sternly told to get off the sculpture. There will be no such confusion starting this weekend at the Carleton College gallery in Northfield at the Functional Sculpture exhibit.
Northfield, Minn. — Let's face it, most of us don't think much about furniture. It helps us sit, lean, eat, sleep. Oh and work too.
So entering the Carleton College gallery is an eye-opening experience. It's a cave filled with extraordinary treasures -- crisply functional desks, gleaming tables, and even a chair designed to fold up and hang on the wall as an artwork.
As co-curator of the Functional Sculpture show, designer and critic Glenn Gordon scoured the Midwest for these examples.
"A lot of it I chose, frankly, because it's interesting as much sculpturally as it is functionally," Gordon says.
There is a particular type of person who lives and breathes furniture -- a particular brand of obsessive.
Dean Wilson knows many of them. In fact, as the head of the furniture design program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he is one of them.
He says walking into the functional sculpture show is like meeting a group of old friends. He goes over to what's called Ellipsoid Table.
Tim Gorman of Minneapolis designed it on a computer, and then made it to exacting specifications using exotic woods. Gorman only makes one or two pieces a year, and Wilson jokes he must work 23 hours a day.
"Every piece he does just blows me away," Wilson says. "Because he comes up with the craziest ways of solving problems for joinery and his drawers, and he does mechanical devices and hidden compartments and things that open in ways you can't imagine."
Wilson's contribution to the show is an elegant cocktail cart.
"I think I may have started with the Formica top as just being a form that was probably derivative from a Peter Gunn or Henry Mancini album cover from 1963, and that's how pieces evolve," Wilson says.
The stylistic breadth in the show is remarkable. There's mass-produced furniture. There's a desk and kitchen table held together by plastic wine corks instead of screws.
There are plenty of one-off pieces too. Curator Glenn Gordon points out a complex double rocking chair built by Tom Oliphant of Minneapolis, "which is made of up-to-the-moment carbon fiber, and bicycle titanium tubes," Gordon says.
In the middle of the show stands a simple wooden bench. Only Gordon points out it's not so simple. The seat and two supports are cut from a single slab of white ash three inches thick.
The legs connect at strange angles, and the joints jut through the seat's surface like uneven teeth. Gordon says designer and builder John Nesset of Minneapolis did the job using only hand tools.
"And it is done in a very structurally audacious way, with incredibly complex joinery," he says. "The joints that are used are called compound angle through dovetail joints. Quite a feat technically, and also very exciting sculpturally."
Another strangely shaped piece sits on the floor nearby.
"What it looks like is something from maybe a missile site," says the show's other curator Laurel Bradley. Then she sits in it and it suddenly becomes clear that this is a chair.
"It's called The Stealth Chair, which is because it is made from the same carbon fiber that the Stealth bomber is made out of," Bradley says.
It was Bradley who came up with the idea for the show. She wanted it to coincide with a class being offered at Carleton called Woodworking: The Table.
Several of the featured furniture makers will come to demonstrate their work before the show, and the class, ends in early March.
Bradley says she is particularly looking forward to the visit of Clifton Monteith, who Bradley describes as "the bent willow chair maker extraordinaire."
"He lives in northern Michigan," she says. "And if you think the kind of thing you buy on the side of the road in north Carolina or something is gorgeous and wonderful, wait until you see these."
The two Monteith chairs in the show draw on both Amish and Art Nouveau traditions. One stands close to six feet tall. It's designed specifically for watching the sunrise.
Curator Glenn Gordon hopes the show may lead to some commissions. He says furniture is the most intimate form of architecture, and being able to buy a piece from someone you know is a unique and long-lasting form of communication.
- Morning Edition, 01/11/2008, 7:50 a.m.