Claire O’Brien, Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Decorative Arts, Painting and Sculpture
Walking into a furniture store today, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with choice when looking at seating options. The showrooms tout impressive displays of objects devoted to leisure and relaxation. Some are straightforward and exquisitely comfortable, while others are stylish but unwelcoming. Perhaps my favorites are the ones that are utilitarian in nature, serving multiple purposes at once. Cup holders are almost mundane when looking at possibilities of built-in fridges, speakers and even massage capabilities; eliminating almost every reason for the lethargic to leave the chair’s warm embrace. This idea of multi-purpose furniture is hardly new, but it’s fascinating to see its evolution.
The recently reopened American Wing has two great examples of such chairs. Although lacking a built-in fridge, the 1835 Reading Chair is an early example that mixes comfort and utility. There’s a certain air of regality about it, which is only right as it was an imitation of a design made for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. The handsome armchair has a walnut frame and a black tufted leather cushion, adding to an appearance which seems to demand to have kingly work done in it. By far, the most interesting aspect of the piece is the adjustable bookstand which can be moved to accommodate both those left handed and right handed. The stand provides a convenient place for writing all of those laws and is a perfect rest for particularly heavy books. All that royal work has you toiling late into the evening? Fear not, it is equipped with a candlestick for all of those all-nighters.
Perhaps less comfortable, but equally fascinating, is Nils Holger Moormann’s Bookinist, 2008. The quirky chair is reminiscent of a push cart, sporting a large rubber wheel front and center, creating a portable workstation. It is very much a self-contained unit, full of hidden storage and whimsical objects. An estimated 80 paperback books can be shelved in the chair. Tired of reading? Then open the compartment containing a magnifying glass, notebook, bookmarks, pencils and a pencil sharpener. Getting too dark? Simply flip the switch for the jaunty lamp. Thirsty after all that reading? Take advantage of the handy cup holder.
Both of these diverting chairs have made me drastically re-evaluate my expectations for furniture. I now appreciate a certain versatility in furniture’s function, wanting more than mere places of rest for the weary. It will definitely be interesting to see how the latest innovations influence future designs. Maybe we really will never have to get up – a dangerous idea indeed.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.