It all started with a bench.
A few years back, Etherton Gallery hired Tucson furniture maker Scott Baker to craft a wooden bench for its downtown space. Baker is known for his exquisite handmade furniture, cabinets and tables in sleek swathes of cherry and steel. (He also once ran the now-defunct Metroform Limited photography gallery.) He did not disappoint when he got the Etherton job.
"We got more than a bench," says proprietor Terry Etherton. "We got a piece of art."
That realization inspired Art + Design, Etherton's first-ever exhibition of art furniture. Baker's modernist work is displayed alongside the more traditionally styled mesquite chairs and tables of Stephen Paul of Arroyo Design.
The show is not too much of a stretch for the gallery, which usually shows fine rather than functional art.
"This furniture is sculptural," Etherton says. "It's incredibly beautiful to deal with."
Etherton has also filled the walls with work more conventionally thought of as art: paintings by Nancy Tokar Miller and Jim Waid, and photographs by Judy Gelles. Glass artist Tom Philabaum contributed nearly 50 tabletop sculptures in shimmering colors.
Galleries in New York have been joining forces on theme shows, Etherton says. "What's happening in the art world lately is there's a lot of collaboration going on," both to cross-promote businesses in a difficult economy and to inspire artists to do a little cross-fertilization of their own. He intended his show to get some homegrown collaboration going on.
The plan seems to have borne fruit. Tucsonans Philabaum and Paul worked together for the first time. Both artists have run businesses in town for decades, but inspired by Art + Design, they've made a series of handsome lamps with mesquite bases and glass tops. The exhibition signals to locals that the Old Pueblo does indeed have plenty of top-drawer talent. Etherton pronounced himself so pleased that he's considering staging the exhibition regularly every few years, with fresh artists and designers each time.
The gallery has been set up like a dazzling showroom, with the handcrafted furniture arranged across the floor on both sides of large pedestals topped with the glittering Philabaum wares. ("We have all this space," Etherton says, "but it's rare for us to use it.") On the floor are a dozen or so hand-knotted rugs from Tibet, Iran and Nepal, brought south for the show by Scottsdale dealer David Adler. The rugs' strong geometries, floating rectangles framed in brown or black, say, or Mark Rothko-esque bands of color, easily hold their own against the contemporary American designs.
The gallery staff had fun trying to pair up the right wall art with the right furniture art. Tokar Miller's minimalist near-abstractions hang above Baker's furniture on the room's north side. Tokar Miller's "Agua Caliente," an acrylic on paper, is a long horizontal splash of yellow-green, conjuring up Tucson's lush eastside park. The faint white of a bridge railing traces against the yellow, and a dash of red shoots sideways.
Below the painting is Baker's wall-hung buffet piece "Brenda—Server." (All of his furniture models have women's names.) It's long and delicate, a stretch of countertop in pale cherry wood with several drawers placed asymmetrically below. A slab of steel accents the top: Baker often tempers the sheer beauty of his glossy woods with industrial metal.
Tokar Miller, who wowed the town last winter with her retrospective at the UA Museum of Art, shares a less-is-more aesthetic with Baker. Both artists favor minimalist gestures, delicate shapes and pure color. A trio of her sandhill crane bird paintings, all simple curves and craning necks against pearl gray or pale yellow, hangs above Baker's "Mary Ann—Audio Cabinet." A walnut wall-hung cabinet, named for Mary Ann Hesseldenz, Baker's partner in the firm BAKER + HESSELDENZ design, is so minimalist that it doesn't even have handles. Like the rest of Baker's work, it's gorgeously crafted, and so simply shaped that the beauty of the materials shines through.
Across the room, on the south side, a pair of giant Jim Waid paintings takes up most of the wall space above Paul's mesquite furniture. Mesquite is a forceful wood, full of whorls and black markings, and colored a strong red-brown. Waid's paintings likewise are alive with activity, vivid exaggerations of the pulsating life in the desert.
"King's Canyon" is a monumental acrylic on canvas, a triptych that unfurls 16 1/2 feet across and rises 7 feet high. Colored in earth tones of brown and ocher and yellow, with the shapes outlined by vigorous strokes of black, it conjures up a seething patch of desert. Prickly pear pads, ocotillo sticks and snake skins alternate between realism and abstraction, depending on how close you stand.
Below this paean to the desert are pieces of furniture—easy chairs, dining tables, tables—carved out of the Southwest desert's prime wood. Paul and the artisans in his workshop (he admirably gives credit to each designer and woodworker on each piece) tame this wild material without overwhelming it. Paul's mesquite pieces are thicker and hunkier than Baker's—Etherton calls them masculine—but they're equally exquisite and finely made. One table, called a demi-lune, or half-moon, is meant to be placed against a wall, but the flat wall side is as carefully finished as the half-circle meant to be shown off.
Paul began his furniture career decades ago by crafting armoires for historic but closet-less houses in Tucson's barrios, and his aesthetic is still shaped by historical styles, particularly mission, Biedermeier and what Paul calls presidio, for Tucson-influenced designs. His "Pierce Lounge Chair" is an update on the classic Morris chair, and the newly created Etherton Chaise is an old-world-inspired fainting couch in leather and mesquite.
Philabaum gets into the desert aesthetic, too, in his Precarious Rocks series. Globes of glass, in silvery orange or brown or blue, are piled one atop the other. But the stacks are askew: They look more like out-of-control prickly pears than slippery stones. Others in the series stand alone, single marvelous multicolored orbs. Still another local treasure, Philabaum continues firing glass in his downtown studio, producing a line of production goods while continuing to explore the outer limits of glass art in his own work.
Judy Gelles of Philadelphia is the lone out-of-towner in the Art + Design bunch, but her work hews, kind of, to the overarching theme. The cabanas she photographs in brilliant color in her Australian Beach Boxes series aren't real houses. They're homes away from home, simple sheds by the sea, with no fine furniture to recline on or paintings to delight the eye.
Nevertheless, these pointy little huts are marvelously designed. Their roofs rise up toward the heavens, and their outsides are painted in bold blocks of pink and yellow and blue. The wonderful colors and patterns, Gelles explains in press materials, mark each box as a particular family's possession. The designs, different on each cabana, are a kind of high-class graffiti—a vivid assertion that home is where the art is.