Artistic freedom is essential, but boundaries have their place as well. Limitations encourage creativity: one can’t think outside the box if there is no box. The chair, for instance, is a seat, a back and sometimes a pair of arms resting on a support. Yet think of the many variations that artists and artisans have conceived through the centuries, manipulating materials and details as well as the basic form.
Thematic potential is endless, too. A throne asserts social hierarchy, a BarcaLounger, middle-class relaxation. The sea of empty chairs that commemorates bombing victims at the Oklahoma City National Memorial is a metaphor for human absence.
The Portfolio Center takes advantage of the chair’s formal and symbolic possibilities in a course in which students explore design history as a catalyst for new ideas and form as personal expression. Each is assigned a design movement or style and asked to create a chair imbued with some aspect of his or her personal history. The student works with a craftsman to produce the chair.
“Stories in Form: Chair Design at Portfolio Center,” the dramatic exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta through June 3, presents the results of their learning and labor. Each of the 28 pieces is accompanied by a label explaining the art movement and the thought behind it.
Supporting my contention, the exhibition offers as many interpretations of the chair as there are objects. Designs range from the sleek simplicity of modernists such as Marcel Breuer to the dramatic forms of contemporary designers such as Ron Arad.
Jennifer Fenrich, for example, successfully channels Suprematism in a composition in which red and black planes of wood penetrate the chair back to resemble a Kasimir Malevich painting. William Matthew Holloway hews closely to the benches of Dutch designer Jurgen Bey in his use of a chunk of horizontal tree trunk as a seat back.
Among my favorites, Allison Dick’s “Family” combines elegant simplicity and imagination. The straightforward design of the seat and curving legs, subtly differentiated by different stains, is the foil for the fanciful, organic chair back — a row of five bundles of wooden strands wrapped in string, which loosen as they “escape” the string, intertwining to create a loose lattice of vines. The chair back, intended to suggest family relations of isolation and togetherness, reflects the metamorphic themes of Surrealism, Dick’s assigned movement.
Form and content fuse admirably in Lauren Jung’s “Echo,” whose construction process reflects her obsessive nature: work that might be tedious for others is a welcome activity, which, like the body-enveloping shape of the chair, suggests the comfort of ritual.
In contrast to the hulking, unitary “Echo,” Meg Harvey’s “Acquiesce” is a weightless deconstruction. The seat and back, organic shapes of rich redwood burl, float, or are entangled in, the metal structure, curling like Art Nouveau vines, that supports them. It’s a striking piece. I would never have guessed, however, that the tangled steel represents chaos and the burl, which is a diseased wood, her difficult home life.
In fact, many of the chairs here do not seem to answer one or another aspect of the assignment. But this reflects a conceptual flaw in the model, not the work: artists generally find the form that best expresses their thoughts, not vice versa. To start with a “style” is not an organic process, and neither is requiring personal expression.
Not that this is ultimately important to us. Often an artist’s personal thoughts serve to jump-start the creative process; the art object isn’t a message. In the end, the object has to stand — or sit — on its own.