Tiny Architecture

MOCA features two exhibitions spotlighting furniture as art

Furniture, says Anne-Marie Russell, director of Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art, is "tiny architecture."

That's one reason MOCA's gaping gallery space is filled right now with edgy functional art instead of its usual edgy fine art. Red-painted plywood tables, chairs of twisting metal, fiber-optic lamps that climb the wall and couches in Lucite and mirrored glass are just a few of the wild furniture pieces on view.

Since Russell signed on as director, the museum has paid welcome attention to "big" architecture, offering lectures and shows on building design and even adding a curator of architecture, UA professor Christopher Domin. But the two current exhibitions--a historical survey of modernist chairs and the invitational Furniture Art Designers Showcase (FADS)--are all about what goes inside the buildings that architects design.

Russell herself curated the little chair show, Somewhere Between Standing Up and Lying Down, drawing some 16 well-worn chairs from private Tucson collections--that is to say, from private Tucson living rooms. This quick survey of 20th-century household design bears witness to the paring down of the American aesthetic, from overstuffed Victorian chair to sling. The pieces begin with a 1928 steel-and-leather easy chair co-designed by the architect Le Corbusier and go all the way up to a contemporary wicker rocker from Ikea, the great new commercial god of Arizona, in a salute to good mass-market design.

Some of the pieces are familiar because they were once so widely reproduced. A classic stackable wood chair by Charles and Ray Eames--a standard in offices and schools across America--dates from 1945. A wicker bucket chair on steel legs, formerly a staple of student apartments, is the handiwork of Arieto Bertoia, an Italian designer. He dreamed it up in the 1950s, and it was manufactured and distributed in the '60s.

Other works are more individual. An elegant 1960s stool is by Wharton Esherick, a late Philadelphia designer known for fanciful work in wood; the stool's sleek simplicity is one good reason his reputation has lately been undergoing a Renaissance. The respected Max Gottschalk of Tucson, who once taught at Pima College, contributes a handsome sling chair in leather and steel, circa 1980.

If the little chair show is scholarly and do-not-touch, the much bigger FADS show is commercial. All of the work is by living Arizona designers, primarily from Tucson and Phoenix, and all of their pieces are for sale, or can be special-ordered. You can try out the wares by sitting on the sofas and chairs, and it's a good thing, too, because some are more sculptural than comfortable.

A local furniture designer, Mary Ann Hesseldenz, and a furniture store owner, Hilary Peterson, organized the exhibition for the second year in a row. Tucson has long been known for fine hand-crafted wood furniture by the likes of such studios as Arroyo Design, but FADS opens a window on local designers of cutting-edge contemporary work.

Les Wallach, one of a number of architects in the show, most clearly demonstrates the relationship between architecture and furniture. The lines of his innovative desk, "birdesk," mimic the long, low planes of his houses. The vast expanse of the desktop shoots out at one end like the overhang of a roof; drawers at the other end seem to hover in the air. It's a variation in miniature on his famous Arroyo House, which clings to the land at either end, and floats above an arroyo in the middle.

Scott Baker, an acclaimed designer and craftsman who also runs the Metroform photography gallery, is alone among the FADS artists in sticking with classic fine woods. His furniture, in walnut, ebony and cherry, is beautifully made and beautiful to look at. Still, he brings a contemporary sensibility to his work, which includes a clean-lined storage console and a bookcase.

Most of the designers experiment with a wild assortment of materials, dreaming up pieces in everything from plywood and metal to concrete and I-beams. Ed Fickbohm's playful "Zig-Zag Table" is red-painted plywood that zigs like lightning over sinewy steel legs that curve like a snake. Hesseldenz's "Holmes" is a table in mirrors and steel; her "Wonderland" is a bench in gold metal, comfortably upholstered in cowhide.

Aaron Dunham's couch and chair are made of metal I-beams and Plexiglas (you wouldn't want to linger long on these cold affairs). His intimidating executive desk is a big sheet of glass atop a metal I-beam; three massive concrete legs support the whole thing. Peter Deise Cary's "Goliath chairs" are more fun than Dunham's scary office furniture. They look like the thrones of forest kings, their unruly rods jutting out in all directions. But beware: Those metal bars can hurt your soft body parts after a while. Likewise, Daniel Istrate has a good-looking chair of wooden rods encased in plywood sides, but one of those rods hits painfully on the spine at mid-back.

The most comfortable pieces are also the most outrageous. Designed by the Hofberger duo, Steven and Kevin, these chairs and chaise lounges could be something out of a mod 1960s English movie along the lines of Morgan. They begin with steel legs, proceed to birch platforms, and end in 3-D upholstery--made up of soft tubes encased in red velvet. The tubes are tethered to the wood platforms like coral to the bottom of the sea, and when you stretch your weary art-viewing limbs over them, you feel like you're nestled in a cloud.

The biggest Hofberger work, "Carousel," is a giant flat circle entirely covered with the comfy red things. You can spread your arms and legs out in all directions, and still fit a friend on board. But its size (8 feet in diameter), price tag ($7,000) and bordello aesthetic guarantee it will make its way into very few homes.

Price is a sticking point in this show. Custom design and custom production do not come cheap. A few entrants deliberately try to make good design affordable. James Ketover crafts simple pieces out of such inexpensive materials as manufactured hollow doors and plywood, but he's not entirely successful. His benches and shelves are cleverly designed and carefully made, but not that interesting to look at.

Highfalutin design ideas do filter down to the mass market--see the Ikea rocker and the stackable chair, above--but this show is mostly about elite taste. Rich people can afford this hand-crafted stuff; the middle class might buy factory-made knockoffs, and the poor have to be satisfied with what they can scrounge up.

Architecture has the same problem. Too often, architects spend their lives in service to the rich, designing custom houses that are too big for people with too much money, while ignoring the affordable-housing crisis of the poor. The challenge for designers of conscience--architects as well as furniture designers--is to figure out how to make their work more widely available. And while they're at it, the furniture artists might try giving a little more thought to the architecture of the human body by cushioning and curving their woods and metals to accommodate its bones.