Grand Rapids Art Museum presents Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture

“Does the world really need ever more chairs?”, is arguably the question we are most regularly asked.
Alongside, “What do you actually do all day?”

The answer to the second question depends on who posed it, in how far we hope to impress them or in how far we fear they may stop us doing what we do were they to discover what that actually is.

The answer to the first question is “Yes”

Or “Yes, if the new chair represents an advance over existing chairs”

A chair being not something you sit on, but a process, a material, an idea.

And an advancement not being simply a new colour or textile covering, but something which fundamentally improves the process, material or idea. And in the best cases, all three.

An impression of what that means can be found in the exhibition Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture on show at Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture

Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture

Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture

More a showcase than an exhibition per se 20th Century Furniture presents a very concise selection of the Grand Rapid Art Museum’s design collection through which in the words of the GRAM’s Chief Curator Ron Platt they aim to “introduce some of the different forms, shapes and thinking that have gone into twentieth century design and thus explain not just why the exhibits are visually appealing but also the thought, functional innovations and production practices which make them genuinely interesting”, and thereby, hopefully, expand the public’s understanding of what furniture design actually is. And that it isn’t just about objects which look “cool”

To this end the presentation features 20th Century Furniture designs by the likes of Verner Panton, Marcel Breuer, Frank Gehry or Charles and Ray Eames.

The latter being an inclusion which, and given that the Herman Miller factory, and thus the point where Charles and Ray’s visions became reality, stands just 30 kilometres down the road, poses the obvious question, “Does a 20th century furniture design exhibition in West Michigan have to include works by Charles and Ray Eames?”

“No not all,” laughs Ron Platt in response to our impudence, “I can well envisage an exhibition without the Eames and I don’t think they’d be upset by that! However we are lucky enough to have some marvellous objects by them, and objects which are always a pleasure to show”

And for us one of the genuine highlights of the showcase is just such a “marvellous object”: a bar stool designed by Charles and Ray Eames for the La Fonda restaurant in New York. The La Fonda chair is well known, equally the La Fonda table. But the La Fonda bar stool? Although arguably it is a much more interesting piece, not just formally, and functionally through the three separate footrests rather than the more normal ring, but also technically: whereas the La Fonda chair is constructed from two different die-cast aluminium elements, the La Fonda bar stool comprises three identical die-cast aluminium elements and thus represents a much more rational and economic construction and production system.

In addition through works by the American designer Peter Shire and his English colleague George Sowden 20th Century Furniture neatly reminds us that Memphis wasn’t a purely Italian phenomenon, the scattering throughout the museum of works by the likes of Hector Guimard or Paul T Frankl neatly expanding the story of 20th century design and helping place the developments in context of general developments in arts and crafts, while the untitled Harry Bertoia sculpture on the first floor reminds us that furniture designer is less a profession and more a talent.

And for all an understanding that a chair is not something you sit on, but a process, a material, an idea……..

As an exhibition Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture is bijou, but does provide a very competent, entertaining and for all interesting and informative introduction to some of the essentials of contemporary furniture design.

Modern Design at GRAM: 20th Century Furniture runs at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 until Sunday September 4th

Full details can be found at

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