What makes furniture art?

From the chairman to the dead man’s chest: what our furniture says about us

6 minute read
8 very fine chairs displayed on a gallery wall in two rows. They all have different shapes, colors, and decorative flourishes
Simple purpose; striking variety of form: chairs in the PMA collection. (Photo by Camille Bacon-Smith.)

“What makes furniture art?”

That’s one thing I asked Kathleen Foster, the Robert J. McNeil Jr. senior curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when we spoke last year about the PMA’s Early American Galleries. It’s an important question, not just because museums are full of the stuff. Furniture, one of the biggest aesthetic choices we make in our lives, has two jobs: a practical purpose—a place to sit, or stow our clothes—and an expressive one, giving voice to our identity and sometimes, to our history.

For Foster, the answer came easily. “We love to think of furniture as sculpture,” she said, and led me around a corner, where chairs were hung in two rows on the wall. At eye level, the display gave an up-close view of the craftsmanship, making us “think about all of the choices that an artist makes in making a chair.”

The birth of the chairman

Chairs have done the same job for centuries, whenever we wanted to sit. Presented like art, however, their variety of form is striking, from the delicate sensuality of the lyre-back dining chair to the plush comfort of an oreille, or wing-back chair. Like most art, there’s a social story of status and prestige attached. The term chairman comes from a time when there would have been only one chair in the room. In the 17th century, Foster said, “most people would have been on little stools, so they would have been lower than the person in the chair.”

By the 18th century, wealthy Philadelphians had lots of chairs, but Alexandra Kirtley, PMA curator of decorative arts, described armchairs in what she called the subordinate issues of precedence. We can see this in the news to this day: “if the president is meeting with his cabinet,” she said, “he’s in the biggest chair.”

Stools and shells

But sometimes, a well-appointed stool—such as the examples in the PMA galleries, with elegantly carved legs and a small gold cushion—can have its own cachet. “When you are sitting on a stool, you are a sculpture, right? In the round, being seen on all sides. These put the sitter on display in a way that a chair sort of doesn’t,” Kirtley continued.

In the corner of a PMA gallery, two matching stools have 4 varnished wooden legs and silky ornate yellow upholstery.
The stool has its benefits, too. Examples from the PMA collection. (Photo by Camille Bacon-Smith.)

The artistry of these craftsmen becomes even more evident on the carved chests and dressing tables meant for the bedroom. Arches and rails pick up motifs from Moorish architecture, and carvings depict fables—the fox catches the grapes in a newlywed’s high chest—or elements of nature. Kirtley assured me that, though some have posited the scallop shells adorning so much of 18th-century furniture are a sly sexual reference, they are more likely emblematic of the Enlightenment obsession with science. I cannot help but feel that, sometimes, they are both.

To clean, or not to clean

Of course, not everybody is in the market for a $6 million pie crust table. But in this age of DNA testing as a parlor game, we often have real, material history lurking in grandma’s house. Unfortunately, for decades television has made us second-guess our family heirlooms. Following John T. Kirk’s maxim, “buy it ratty and leave it alone,” Antiques Roadshow appraisers often greet hopeful owners with the sorry news that gran’s old dresser would have put them through grad school if she hadn’t cleaned it up.

Margaret Little, senior conservator of objects at the Barnes Foundation, talked about discussions at nearby Winterthur Museum when that pie crust table sold—to clean or not to clean. But, she said, in general, you have to look at the housekeeping manuals of the past: “what is the discussion there? What were people doing?”

It turns out grunge is no guarantee of an original finish. According to Kirtley, “when varnish starts to lift from the wood it does what is called refracting, so it makes it look really, really old, but it’s not necessarily the original finish.” She pointed out the Cadwalader family portrait, with a gleaming table in it, and added, “one has to be careful, understanding that furniture was intended to be bright and shiny.”

The finishes were even intended to be redone. She described the history of the collection’s small lady’s writing desk made for the wife of Louis Clapier. “She loves it, she uses it. In 1822, they decide to give it to their daughter. They had it repaired, and likely refinished.” The wood gleams, but given other examples, she said, it may originally have been painted.

Changing a piece to suit did not stop in the early 19th century. In a conversation about the Barnes collection, Lisa Minardi, director of the Historic Trappe Museum and Pennsylvania German Center in Montgomery County, pointed out a brightly painted cupboard in the collection. The horizontal plate rails were missing from the upper glass-doored case, likely to better display Albert Barnes's ceramics collection, she said. “That’s common. Dupont was doing the same thing.”

Oh provenance!

Provenance is another word that sinks hearts on the Roadshow, but a better word might be context. Minardi disputes the attribution of the craftsman for a chest at the Barnes, but we know it was made for a Michael Fink because his name was painted on the chest, along with the date, 1789. From that she found Fink’s birth and baptismal dates. “He’s born in Salisbury Township in what’s now Lehigh County, so you start to get a place, you get a date. He was 24 years old.” He wasn’t rich or famous, he was just a guy whose furniture has survived him.

A rectangular decorative wooden chest made in 1789. It has black and orange geometric designs and three small drawers.
His furniture survived him: a chest belonging to a Michael Fink, who lived in Lehigh County in the late 18th century. (Image courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.)

Barnes’s grandmother was Pennsylvania German, but he did not begin collecting the furniture until the 1930s. Like so many of us, he spent his earlier years leaving his past behind before returning to his artistic heritage. In doing so, he added his own history to the chest, carrying its story into the future.

Beyond Grandma’s parlor

Dr. Barnes serves as a model in another way as well. Martha Lucy, Barnes deputy director for research, interpretation, and education, reminded me that he did not recreate period rooms like Winterthur and other museums. “He is presenting these things out of context … It’s getting you to look at the connections between the designs on these things and the designs and forms and shapes and colors in the paintings.”

We don’t have to turn our homes into a living history museum of Grandma either. We can grab a small table to hold a lamp and a book and let it shine. A lyre-back chair would look great with new seat upholstery. And someday, our own grandchildren will value the context we added to it.

Lisa Minardi will be teaching a class in Pennsylvania German Decorative Arts at the Barnes from August 30 to September 7, 2022.

You can see the chairs and other pieces from this article at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s New Early American Galleries.

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