Hurrah for chairs! Yes, chairs! Today on Museum Bites we’re celebrating the good old reliable and versatile chair. Not only can they be folded, stacked, rocked, reclined and spun, chairs can serve as a handy step stool, makeshift lock, or sought-after commodity in a popular children’s game.
From plastic stackables to gilded thrones, chairs have supported our weary backsides for centuries. The earliest evidence of chairs dates back almost 5,000 years to an ancient Greek statue depicting a harpist sitting on what looks like an ordinary kitchen chair. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings have also featured royals perched upon thrones or gathered around a table for a game of Senet. King Tut’s tomb alone contained a vast array of decadent chairs.
Today we’ll tour the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s charming collection of chairs. Coined “Furniture City”, Grand Rapids, Michigan has a long history of furniture design and manufacturing. Join me for a brief look at this delightful tribute to chairs. We begin with a model my grandmother favored…
Grandma’s Chair: Our first chair in the collection is the hoop-back Windsor armchair (c1840), created by the colorful William “Deacon” Haldane. Dubbed the Father of the Furniture Industry, Haldane opened the first Grand Rapids cabinet making shop in 1836. His company quickly grew and within a few short years, he was filling orders for the Hoop-Back Windsor. With a curved back and ample room to fuss and fidget, the hoop-back was a hit. The Haldane Company also manufactured tables, coffins, and sleighs.
My grandparents had twin knockoff versions of the hoop-back. With plush cushions and springs to rock Grandma’s model was a tad comfier than Haldane’s.
Fun Furniture Fact #1: Haldane was nicknamed Deacon because he read the bible and led a prayer service with his employees at the start of every workday. Haldane eventually sold his furniture factory to pursue a career in real estate.
Naughty Chair: Our next chair is the Dutch Arts and Crafts Side Chair (c1906), created by Charles P. Limbert (1854-1923). Cut along simple but severe lines, the DAC side chair is the stern disciplinarian of the Grand Rapids Public Museum collection. Rapped knuckles and timeouts in the corner came to mind when I first laid eyes on the DAC. The clubs-shaped cutouts (think: deck of cards) add a touch of whimsy, but the stiff back and narrow, unyielding seat don’t encourage one to dally too long. Limbert was known for his signature cutouts, including squares, hearts, spades and a variety of other modest shapes. His company also designed furniture for the Old Faithful Inn located in Yellowstone National Park. Many of the original chairs have been restored and today reside inside this beloved old inn. Click on this Old Faithful Inn video clip for a quick tour. Keep an eye out for the rustic Limbert chairs. Unfortunately, the Dutch Arts and Crafts Side Chair was not included. Perhaps its strict demeanor didn’t jive with the adventurous spirit of Yellowstone 😉
Fun Furniture Fact #2: The Charles P. Limbert furniture factory opened in Grand Rapids in 1902. Limbert’s simple designs were influenced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Hill House fame (see Hill House chair below).
Classy Chair: Our next chair oozes glitz and glamor. Inspired by the risqué evening gowns of the 1950s, the Plunging Neckline Chair (1950) was designed by Paul Frankl (1886-1958) for the Johnson Furniture Company. Known for his “skyscraper furniture”, Frankl’s sophisticated Plunging Neckline Chair conjures up images of champagne and diamonds. This plush, pink chair was a classy addition to Midcentury Modern living (click on Museum Bites Mod Facade to learn more). Today, originals sell for several thousand dollars.
Fun Furniture Fact #3: Brothers Carl, Hjalmar, and Axel Johnson founded the Johnson Furniture Company in 1908. Prior to his move to the United States, Carl Johnson was awarded an honorary medal from the King of Sweden for his carpentry skills.
Tiny Chairs: Our final stop is Chairmania! an enchanting collection of miniature chairs donated to the museum by designer and chair fanatic, George M. Beylerian. This exhibit includes over 200 pint-sized chairs including a tiny metal and leather Art Deco club chair (c1930), a delicate soda fountain chair encrusted with Swarovski crystals (1990), a model of the lofty Hill House chair (original, 1903), and my personal favorite, a mini Eames Shell chair (1950; click on Museum Bites Mod Facade to learn more about this iconic shell chair). To view more photos from this collection, click on this Chairmania! link.
Fun Furniture Fact #4: Can’t get enough of Chairmania’s adorable tiny chairs? Then you’re in luck! George Beylerian and David Revere McFadden created, Chairmania: Fantastic Miniatures (1994), a colorful photo book showcasing the Chairmania collection.
This concludes our discussion of the indispensable and versatile chair. Tune in next week when we wrap up our tour of the Grand Rapids Public Museum with a sampling of some old-fashioned sweet treats. Until then, have a great week!
Beylerian, GM. & McFadden, DR. (1994), Chairmania: Fantastic Miniatures
Grand Rapids Public Museum: Chairmania!
Lewis, N. (2008) Grand Rapids: Furniture City
National Public Radio: Better Sit Down For This One, by Elizabeth Blair (2016)
Rybczynski, W. (2016) Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History
The Atlantic: A Global History of Sitting Down by Uri Friedman (2016)