Robert Pirsig is a guy to love or hate. Maybe you love and hate him, but nobody who knows his writing just likes him.
On the surface, one could say this is because he followed up his classic, best-selling, somewhat pseudo-philosophical text Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with the appallingly trashy, droopy like a Viagra shortage, intellectually lazy Lila.
The first book, for better or for worse, became one of the best-selling “philosophical” texts of all time—after setting the Guinness World Record for most rejections by publishers, at 121. The second book is marked mostly by the long shadow cast by the death of the author’s son, and the sharp odor of post-middle age, self-indulgent bullshit aping itself off as considered thought. Thus, the common sensation of dislike for Pirsig.
Another reason to dislike Pirsig, however, is his unrelenting insistence that quality, above all else, is at the core of experience, of life, of value. And, since the publication of Zen in 1974, it is safe to say quality has improved in very few areas and withered in many. Is quality something we may consider across the board—quality of relationships, of life, of thought—through something as simple and distilled as the essence of an object? A chair, perhaps?
In the case of A Chair for All Reasons at the Museum of International Folk Art, the answer is yes, despite the disheartening and goofball nature of the exhibition’s title. The “reasons,” in this case, are more like general categories, with the chairs on view organized by application: home, work, kids, outdoors and ritual.
Throughout, the chairs range from folksy, utilitarian construction to fine handcraft to one-off art objects to manufactured design pieces. In addition to wood, steel, plastic and fabric, there are chairs made from steer horns, beer cans, papier-mâché, scrap signage, potato chip cans and cardboard. Some adhere to the body for primary shape, others go for an abstracted purity of form and others are fashioned after owls, dragons, boats, cubes and bodies. There are chairs for relaxing, typing, eating and sewing. There are chairs for meditation, contemplation, weddings and royalty.
Among the most enchanting chairs are the small stools, mostly for work, such as milking—stubby precursors to rolling mechanics’ stools. A pair of short but lengthy forms from Uganda are so small as to be almost inconceivable for seating.
Santa Fe-based furniture maker Tom Emerson gets his due, with a large display devoted entirely to his steel-scrap chairs. Emerson’s eye for form and subdued aesthetic allows his work to drift comfortably between the span of utilitarian, colonial and modern selections found elsewhere in the hall.
Facing Emerson’s chairs is a captivating display of pieces by Hosea Hayden, a 19th century furniture maker who frequently made “tripods”—three legged stools and small chairs, some of them folding. Not only is the craftsmanship charming, elegant and visible, but Hayden took to covering the works with text and illustrations, often of political or biblical nature and with a keen sense of social criticism. Somewhere between frantic and whimsical, Hayden’s three-dimensional “journals” are curiosities that last long after leaving the museum.
In a similar “outsider” vein, there is a bottle-cap chair by Mr. Imagination—the primitive artist who took up his feverish creative production after surviving bullet wounds to the stomach—as well as work by his younger brother. More on the insider track, there are early works by the architect Frank Gehry and the legendary Sam Maloof as well as a Charles Eames design for Herman Miller with fabric done by Alexander Girard (Girard’s collection of folk art comprises the cornerstone of the museum’s permanent collection). Also on view are prime examples of Arts and Crafts icons like the Morris chair, with clean lines, precise joinery and discreet Jules Verne-ish hardware to adjust reclining positions.
Many of the most beautiful chairs are not attributed to particular craftspeople and more to general eras or purposes. Particularly apt, as Americans confront the results of rabid consumerism and look toward belt-tightening in the coming years, is the chair table. A stout chair with a broad, almost ornamental back when placed against the wall, it folds down to create a table when pulled into the center of a room. Apparently it was all the rage in the small British colonial homes of 17th century America. An even better example of the same concept is demonstrated by a Finnish bord stol from the 19th century.
Ultimately, the chairs in the exhibition may be lumped into broad categories or lionized for the individual stories behind their creation, but they all speak to a broader, bigger, more enticing and important human story: that of quality.
Often it is the pure quality of craft and the sensible skills that are so frighteningly absent today. Other times, the chairs in the exhibition represent quality of imagination or of practical triumph. Either way, the exhibition is more than a room full of chairs. It’s a place to rest some serious thoughts about the quality of the world we’d like to be sitting in.
A CHAIR FOR ALL REASONS
Through Jan. 6, 2009
Museum of International Folk Art
706 Camino Lejo