Written by Museum Services Manager, Emily Wolverton
Issue No. 63 of Minis Magnified will be broken down into three parts, each magnifying a couple exquisite seats in our collection.
Take a Seat! Exploring Some of the Whimsical and Historical Chairs in our Collection. Pt. 1 of 3
Ah yes, the Chair. How can it be that something so utterly mundane can likewise speak volumes about a time period, a culture, or an artistic movement? Throughout history seating has evolved in a class of its own, highlighting human ingenuity and addressing a gamut of personal concerns from the aesthetic to the practical. Chairs can and have been made from a staggering variety of materials, including concrete, wood, bone, plastic, natural fibers, and metal. They are made for comfort, allowing a person to sink into their cushions like an embrace; they are lightweight and compact, durable enough to take a tumble down a hillside. We even have chairs that encourage us not to sit, addressing our new era of prolonged inactivity. Miniaturists are acutely aware of the role that a chair can play in a setting: furniture is a tell-tale indicator of not just the recreated time period but also the social status and personality of the inhabitant. The right chair tells the right story. Throughout our galleries you will find hundreds of miniature chairs, each deserving of appreciation; today, over the next few months we will take a look at just a handful of these small scale seats, those whose historical significance, craftsmanship, and novelty have begged the spotlight.
The Shoo-Fly Chair
Much can be said about brilliant miniaturist, Madelyn Cook. The pieces which she has donated to our collection over the years have become crowd favorites, standing out as stellar examples of dexterity and imagination. Above all else, Cook is a die-hard perfectionist – she does extensive research throughout her planning and building process, capturing concepts and ambience in a way that both educates and delights. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Cook seeks out the unusual and rare, designing palm-sized objects of curiosity which are truly one of a kind. Her “Shoo-Fly Chair” is a shining example of a challenge accepted: it is a replica of one found in the Governor’s Palace Kitchen in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Cook has placed it in her monumental work Lagniappe, an 18th century Virginia Tidelands mansion modeled after George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. The Colonial-era Shoo-Fly Chair is evidence of the resourcefulness of the 18th century, as the spirit of innovation and self-reliance crept into all facets of everyday life. In a time when air conditioning was non-existent, kitchens were stiflingly hot places indeed, with the only relief coming in from open windows. These open windows would create a secondary nuisance: the onslaught of flies. A person sitting in the aptly named Shoo-Fly Chair could press down upon the attached foot pedal, which activated a fringe above the sitter's head, effectively shooing flies away from the person's face. Understandably, this chair is a favorite among our museum docents when discussing Lagniappe with our visitors, especially school children.
The Kang Table
Madelyn Cook makes our list again, this time showing her prowess for creating furnishings with a global perspective. You may wonder why a table would be on our list of chairs, but this particular fixture has a dual purpose. Known as a Kang Ji or K'ang Chi, this ancient and traditional piece of Chinese furniture is focused around a three-walled raised platform – the kang – used for sleeping or relaxing. During the day, a small table is placed in the center, which can then be accessed by persons seated cross-legged on cushions at either side; at night the table is removed and the platform becomes a bed. It embodies the Chinese aesthetic of elegant simplicity. Why is it included in a Virginia Tidelands home? According to Madelyn Cook, the mythical owner of Lagniappe is a merchant sea captain who sailed the seven seas and made his fortune trading in exotic ports around the world. He has now filled the rooms of his plantation mansion with souvenirs as a tribute to his travels, including a room dedicated to the Ming Dynasty of the 15th – 17th century, in which her Kang Table is located. Cook has set out calligraphy brushes, stamps, and an ink pot on the Kang Table, as finishing touches. Cook fashioned another Kang Table for her beautiful Yu Yuan, located in our Exploring the World Gallery.
Stay tuned for Minis Magnified Issue No. 63 pt. 2: The Chair Table, The Eames Lounge and Ottoman and the Architectural Stool.