Carnegie's tale of two chairs

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Curators at the Carnegie Museum of Art joke that the building's store rooms boast a multitude of chairs and nowhere to sit.

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
The ladder-back oak armchair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh was traced back to a club in Glasgow, circa 1895.
Click photo for larger image.

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That's because once a chair becomes part of the collection, it's like the cheese -- the chair stands alone, and no one, by God, is allowed to sit on it.

One relatively new addition is a children's chair designed by Sharon and Lawrence Tarantino, New Jersey-based architects who live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house and restore historically significant homes.

The Tarantino chair served as a "design moment" in a 2005 exhibition at the museum that was called "kid size: The Material World of Childhood."

"I saw the chair in design magazines. It was also in Child Magazine. The designers really thought about who their user was," said Elisabeth Agro, associate curator for decorative arts.

The orange and red striped chair, which cost $85, is soft, modular, holds up to 300 pounds and can be stacked on similar chairs. On Agro's recommendation, the museum bought a Tarantino chair because it fit into its collection of nearly 300 chairs, which includes furniture designed by architects.

But it is only the second children's chair in the collection. The first, a forbidding looking contraption of wood and leather, was made in the early 1900s by Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch furniture designer.

The more inviting Tarantino chair is made of closed cell foam, a waterproof material used for items found on boats. It was part of a furniture line the Tarantinos introduced in 2002.

"This chair was their first venture into furniture making," Agro said. "It blasted off. It became the hottest thing in children's design." And that made it a worthwhile museum acquisition.

Acquiring a decorative object, painting or sculpture is a bit different each time because each piece is distinctive. But the process requires certain steps.

Curators research the ownership history of an artwork to authenticate it and ask a conservator to assess its condition. When curators recommend purchases, they outline an artist's life and accomplishments, then explain why the acquisition makes sense for a particular museum.

The Carnegie Museum of Art's collection committee is advised of all acquisitions and must approve purchases that cost more than $25,000.

In February, the museum's collections committee formally accepted a large oak armchair created by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scottish architect, furniture and textile designer and water colorist. Tey Stiteler, the museum's spokeswoman, declined to say what the museum paid for the chair, citing security concerns.

Mackintosh fused elements of the Arts and Crafts style, Japanese culture, Celtic elements and Symbolism into a distinctive look known as the Glasgow Style. He designed more than 400 pieces of furniture in 25 years.

The ladder back armchair, made in 1897, was purchased to honor the 17-year tenure of Sarah Nichols, the chief curator and curator of decorative arts, who retired on Feb. 3.

Nichols is passionate about chairs and believes the history of design can be read through their various forms.

Finding and acquiring the Mackintosh chair necessitated a six-month search and required nearly 30 people to keep a secret, because Agro wanted to surprise Nichols, who was her mentor for nearly a decade.

In June 2005, Agro put the word out to dealers. The last time two Mackintosh chairs of this style had been offered for sale was in 1991. Both had been stripped of their patina, so neither was of museum quality.

"It was a matter of finding the right chair. Will it have its own presence? Will it stand on its own? Condition is important, too," Agro said, adding that she seriously considered four chairs and asked colleagues to help her narrow the field.

Once she made her choice, Agro arranged for the chair, purchased through a London dealer, H. Blairman & Sons, Ltd., to arrive while Nichols was away for three weeks.

That left plenty of time for the acquisition to be examined by Rhonda Wozniak, the museum's conservator of three-dimensional objects, the museum director and members of the collections committee.

The chair's oak, which was given a dark stain, was originally designed by Mackintosh for an exclusive masculine preserve, the Smoking and Billiards Room of the Argyle Street Tea Rooms in Glasgow. The tea rooms were run by Mackintosh's patron, Catherine Cranston.

"The back splats have an elegant, discernible curvature," Agro said. "Look at the feet. It's delicate. It's light. It's not these heavy lions' paws.

Mackintosh did not sign his chairs. But photographs exist of the Argyle Street Tea Room and show at least five chairs of the type the museum purchased.

To Nichols' surprise, Agro unveiled the chair at a Feb. 2 board meeting.

"She blushed and smiled nonstop for 20 minutes," Agro said.

The Carnegie Museum of Art
The Tarantino chair
Click photo for larger image.


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