Armchair anthropology

100 Years/100 Chairs

This 1925 “Club Armstrong” and other chairs at the Nevada Museum of Art are more interesting than you think.

This 1925 “Club Armstrong” and other chairs at the Nevada Museum of Art are more interesting than you think.

Photo By David Robert

The security guards at the Nevada Museum of Art will likely be working extra hard during the next few months—"Please! Don’t sit there!” An entire exhibit of 100 chairs, and you’re not allowed to sit on a single one.

And some of these truly beg to be sat on. There’s the cherry red lounge chair with head rests shaped into two bosom-like cushions and a seat like a woman’s soft belly (no surprise that it was designed by a man, Gaetano Pesce, in 1969). Then there’s a chair designed by Frank O. Gehry made entirely of corrugated cardboard. One wonders if it would spring up or collapse if it actually was used.

I was prepared to be bored with 100 Years/100 Chairs. I mean, it’s just chairs, right? While the museum’s recent history/design related exhibit, Modernism in American Silver, was likely interesting to design and history buffs, it was a bit overwhelming. But by breaking 100 years (1899-1999) down into 100 chairs, this exhibit is more focused.

The 100 chairs, which come from Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, are displayed elegantly and chronologically on a two-tiered structure, with one chair on the bottom section and one on the top.

The impact of world events on design is made clear here. At the turn of the century, individually crafted, wooden chairs were giving way to the idea of the designer and mass production. A handsome office armchair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1903 sits near the 1925 “Club Armstrong” chair made of tubular (now rusted) steel and strappy canvas, which looks like it was left out too long by the barbecue pit.

In the 1930s, Bauhaus-influenced designers created chairs made of one plank of wood flowing in a seamless line. Charles and Ray Eames took this a step further in the 1940s by making the chair look three dimensional, yet still attached as a unit. With a war economy underway, they used cheaper materials to make it affordable. One Eames example is a rocking armchair with an orange seat made of polyester and reinforced glass. It looks like a hard hat on arched wooden legs.

Plastics and bright colors come on strong in the 1950s and ‘60s, with curvy, bulbous chairs screaming colors from a crayonbox. A transition to eco-friendly design came in the 1970s, with chairs made of recycled materials (like Gehry’s cardboard series). The 1980s brought the movement back to minimalism. But it was still a time of interior design and major consumption, reflected in chairs like Michele de Lucci’s rather intergalactic “Chair First,” with three orbs circulating on its metal back, or Gaetano Pesce’s “The Pratt Chair,” which is made of urethane but looks like someone let a giant yellow candle burn too long, melting into the form of a chair.

So, yeah, they are “just chairs.” But shown this way, it’s almost like armchair anthropology, telling us a surprising amount about where and who we’ve been.

Art note
Before you leave the museum, swing a hard right to check out the John and Mary Lou Paxton Collection. It’s up through Oct. 1 but eventually will become part of the permanent collection. The Paxtons collected what they liked, so there’s no real theme here; abstract and minimalist paintings share space with urban and rural landscapes, as well as works by Thomas Benton (John Paxton’s former neighbor) and Fritz Scholder.