The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design
6/1/2019 - 9/8/2019

Few works tell the history of modern design as eloquently as the chair. The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design pulls this most familiar of everyday objects out from under the desk and dining room table to surprise us with the exceptional style and creativity to be found in this seemingly humble piece of furniture. Drawn from the Jacobsen Collection of American Art and organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida, the exhibition presents an exploration of American design from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Considering the chair not only as an everyday item but also as functional sculpture, each of the forty chairs in the exhibition reflect important artistic, social, economic, political and cultural influences. The exhibition also offers a glimpse into the dedication and passion of a collector, who collaborated with curators, scholars, and specialists to assemble a collection that not only exemplifies the majority of important movements in American design over two centuries, but also traces the vibrant and progressive history of this country’s ingenuity and creativity.
What's pictured: Designed by Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (1912–1988), Manufactured by Evans Products, Co. for Herman Miller Furniture Company (Est. 1923), Grand Rapids, MI, LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), c. 1945

Examples include a modest Rocking Arm Chair from the 1840s, common to a middleclass home or front porch, simply designed for comfort and function; later nineteenth century furniture that drew its inspiration from European Gothic, Rococo, and Renaissance Revivals and exotic Asian-influenced designs; clever “Patent Furniture” using new materials to allow foldability and flexibility from the office to the railway car; and the Craftsman Movement, admired to this day for its simple, forthright designs. The twentieth century saw the emergence of elegant and futuristic designs using industrial materials, such as aluminum tubing and plastics. In the vital period after the Second World War, American designers wowed the world with modernist designs that were light, compact, and inexpensive yet also projected an energetic and bright outlook. Contemporary chairs reflect a groundbreaking use of materials and design, often mirroring challenging trends in architecture.

Although designed first for function, each chair tells a story about ingenuity, creativity, and the unique history of American decorative design. From chairs made by anonymous craftsmen to a who’s who of modern designers and architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Isamu Noguchi, and Frank Gehry, The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design highlights creativity and inspiration from the kitchen counter to the corner office.

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, in collaboration with the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen, Ph.D. Foundation and is toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.

Wenzel Friedrich of San Antonio, Texas, learned cabinetry in his native Bohemia. Arriving in America in 1853, he initially worked as a grocer. In 1880, he started "recycling" discarded steer horns, anchoring them to wooden seat frames with threaded iron rods. His creations employed up to twenty horns in a chair’s legs, arms, and back, and were frequently upholstered in the hides of wild animals. The novelty and exoticism of his designs were popular with many notable Europeans who would never see the American West in person, including Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm I, who both acquired examples of Friedrich’s work.

The "LCW" (Lounge Chair Wood, pictured at top of page), designed by husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames, is undoubtedly the most celebrated chair design of the 20th century. Using heat and pressure to bend laminated wood into sinuous, curved profiles, the “LCW” feels at once organic and modern. Its striking aesthetics seem almost biomorphic in the separation of the soft, organic shapes of the back, seat, spine and legs—floating by way of unseen rubber shock mounts, its stance feels almost animated.

What's pictured: (above left) Designed and Manufactured by Wenzel Friedrich (active 1880-c. 1890), San Antonio, TX, Texas Longhorn Arm Chair, c. 1890; (below right) Designed and Manufactured by George Hunzinger (1835–1898), New York, NY, Curule Side Chair, c. 1870 (patent March 30, 1869; both photos by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn, Director of Acquisitions, Conservation and Photography

Like many figures in the New York furniture industry of the 1860s and 1870s, George Hunzinger immigrated to America in 1855 at age 20. During his long and productive career, Hunzinger was granted 21 patents for furniture innovations. This chair, pictured right, is perhaps his most enduring design, with diagonal cross bracing from the legs to the back of the chair for strength. Its striking design combines Neoclassical influences with standardized, machine turned components, making its construction quite modern.

The collection of chairs, tables, and sofas created for Knoll in the 1980s by the architect Robert Venturi (see below) broke down barriers between traditional and modern design, employing playful elements that were purely fanciful and decorative. While using modern materials such as laminated wood and plastic and bold, colorful graphics, Venturi appears to have drawn on historic examples for his inspiration, including fancy painted side chairs from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Hours, Tickets, & Tours

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design is open during all regular Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm; late 'til 8 pm on Thursday. Closed Mondays and major holidays.

The Art of Seating is a ticketed exhibition:
General public adults: $10
(Thursday evening pricing, 4-8 pm: $5 for general public adults)
$5 for college students with a valid ID (tickets for those with a UNMC student ID are free)
Youth ages 17 and younger: Free
Joslyn Members: Free (Not a member? Click here to join now!

All visitors, including members, must obtain a ticket for entrance to the exhibition (no reservations necessary).

Programs with visits to the exhibition will be priced accordingly for general public adults. Docent-guided tours of the exhibition are offered on select days. Check the calendar of events for exact tour dates. The Art of Seating ticket pricing applies.

What's pictured: Designed by Robert Charles Venturi (b. 1945), Manufactured by Knoll International, Inc., East Greenville, PA, Sheraton Chair, 1984; Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn, Director of Acquisitions, Conservation, and Photography

Mobile The Art of Seating

Free Wi-Fi is available in all Joslyn galleries. Bring your web-enabled mobile device or borrow one of ours to access the dual language The Art of Seating mobile tour. Presented by Joslyn and OnCell. Call (402) 881-3601 to access the tour in English; (402) 972-4031 for the Spanish language tour. Tour access information also available on site and on the Museum's mobile tour page.

Chair Prototypes: A Partnership

Visit Joslyn's community gallery (Memorial Building, lower level) to see design documents and production-grade prototypes of chairs created by University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) Architecture and Interior Design students. The students were all enrolled in a product design course inspired by the exhibition The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design.

Led by Nolan Golgert, UNL Lecturer-Interior Design, students engaged in a design process including research, data collection, design prototyping, and fabrication. The research phase enabled students to shape their design process around that of other designers to influence how users would “connect” with their chairs, formally and figuratively. Using critical dimensions discovered during data collection, the design prototyping phase allowed students the mobility to pursue various design concepts. Students assessed their work together to evaluate the formal qualities and feasibility of their proposed chairs. In the final five weeks of the course, students merged their findings to fabricate the production-grade prototypes of their chair designs, on view at Joslyn this summer.

What's pictured: (above) Chair prototype by student Van Stanek; (below) Eloise Kruger Miniature Collection, 2011.3, Gift of David and Terrie Irvin

Tiny Treasures

See a dozen handcrafted fine-scale miniature chairs—from ones fashioned after Windsor and Shaker styles to others representing designs by Harry Bertoia and Charles and Ray Eames—all selected from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s (UNL) Kruger Collection of Miniature Furnishings and Decorative Arts. A blend of design history and craft, this little display, on view in Joslyn’s Memorial Building, lower level, is a glimpse into the unique collection of more than 20,000 miniatures permanently housed at UNL’s College of Architecture.

Chair Prototypes and Tiny Treasures are collaborations between Joslyn and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Both are on display at the Museum June 1–September 8 (Memorial Building, lower level).

Exhibition-Related Events & Programs

Friday, May 31; 5:30–8 pm

Saturday, June 1 @ 6 pm

Thursday, June 13; 6-8 pm

Thursday, June 27 @ 6:30 pm (cash bar @ 5 pm)

Thursday, July 25

Saturday & Sunday, August 24 & 25
Free College Weekend
During regular public hours (10 am to 4 pm) on Saturday and Sunday, August 24 & 25, anyone with a valid college ID will receive free tickets to The Art of Seating.

Thursday, August 29

Many regularly scheduled programs will feature The Art of Seating-inspired themes. Check these listings for details:
  • Art Encounters (Thursday, June 20 @ 10:30 am)

  • Stroller Tours (Wednesday, July @ 9:30 am)

  • Story Adventures (Tuesday, August 20 @ 10:30 am)

  • Joslyn offers a variety of The Art of Seating-inspired classes this summer for Kids, Teens, & Adults