Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two Tulip Chairs

What I appreciate about being a student and teacher of Decorative Arts is that everything goes into fashion and then out of fashion constantly. Objects which are well crafted and designed survive for centuries, but at different times in their life are either highly sought after or neglected. That is one important fact for collectors, like stock brokers, who seek to buy low and sell high, anticipating trends in design.

During the 90's Biedermeier was in fashion among a certain strata of designers and collectors. Biedermeier is a name for a period in Germany, Austria, Italy and other middle European countries where the emergence of a middle class created a demand for stylish but affordable furniture. The name, loosely translated into common American, would be something like "John Smith Style" as it relates to the common middle class of society, and a furniture which was made in large quantities and a wide range of quality.

It is also, by its very nature, architectural in its proportions and detail. Pilasters, plinths, columns, and many of its general elements reflected the home interiors directly. Also, there were a lot of newly created and highly specialized forms which evolved to serve the new demands of this middle class.

In my opinion, the imagination of the Biedermeier designers was unsurpassed in adapting these new forms and creating an almost endless variation of the theme among them. For example, you would think a simple chair or table would be easy to design, and that a simple design would work well for all chairs and tables. Not so during the first half of the 19th century. I've looked at thousands of designs in books and real life which are all variations of the same form. Many are simply amusing, some are brilliant, all are different.

So it was, while I was walking on rue Bac on the left bank in Paris (just to name drop), that I saw in the window of an antique shop the famous Tulip Chair from Vienna. Wow. Now I had seen everything. I was not prepared for the original version of the Eero Saarinen plastic chair made famous by the movie 2001. Like I said, what's old is new, all the time.

So I purchased Angus Wilkie's book, "Biedermeier" and looked at the center fold, page 90, and there, in glorious color was the same chair. Now, the question remained, how to make it?

In spite of all the wonderful variations found in Biedermeier furniture, there is one absolute common feature: matched veneers, usually walnut, with a black trim to contrast. Fortunately, I have a large supply of French walnut veneer flitches to choose from.

The bigger problem remained: how to create the form, and would it be comfortable? To answer that question I went to Home Depot and purchased sheet foam insulation in a variety of thicknesses. By cutting up the foam and pinning it together with wire, I was able to mock up a full size replica of the chair, strong enough to sit in. This mock up allowed me to adjust the form and proportions to perfection. Then I was able to build the actual chair by measuring the foam model.

The chair itself is built of solid tulip poplar, laminated and carved to shape. All the surfaces were then veneered with walnut, using hot animal glue. This proved to be a challenge, as wrapping the veneer around the tight curves on the arms was "fun", to say the least.

The upholstery is done in a traditional manner, using horse/hog hair on a fitted frame, which then locks into the chairs using clips, which make the upholstery removable in the future.

When I showed the final product to a designer, she asked me if the chairs had wheels. I replied, "When you sit in these chairs, you don't swivel around to meet people, they walk around to meet you." They now reside in Sacramento and, if asked, no, I would not do it again!

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