Visual Arts

A Farewell to Armchairs

For years, I've harbored two secret but obsessive desires. The first is to furnish an entire house solely with swap meet treasures in truly terrible taste -- you know, resin-on-wood wall clocks decorated with praying hands, garish orange floral crushed velvet couches, faded plastic flower arrangements, glitter-splashed plaster of Paris effigies of Tweety Bird, Michelangelo's David and surfing monkeys.

My second fantasy is to completely fill bed, bath and beyond with art furniture and furnishings that detour from run-of-the-mill functional design and achieve the status of enduring art. (If you're going to dream, dream big, so, of course, I would be handed an unlimited budget to carry off my improbable design dream.)

To kick off this particular reverie, I would include pieces by the three Southern California-based artists whose vastly different work is currently being shown in "Contemporary Art Furniture," an exhibition of art studio furniture at ASU Art Museum curated by senior curator Heather Lineberry and organized as part of The Furniture Society Conference held in mid-March on the ASU campus.

First on the shopping list would be a classic Sam Maloof rocking chair, like the one from the late 1970s appearing in "Contemporary Art Furniture." Often referred to as a "longhorn rocker" or sometimes a "long tail rocker," Maloof's paradigmatic black walnut laminate rocker, sanded, oiled and buffed to silken perfection -- as all of his elegant wood furniture is -- twists the traditional ever so slightly. His longhorn version diverges from the usual curved-rail rocking chair in its use of extremely long, gently undulating rails that snake out improbably, much like the horns of a steer. Allegedly, a single push will put the chair into full rocking mode for four and a half minutes.

If you have the funds and patience necessary to commission one from the artist, who is still going strong in his 80s, a Maloof rocker will set you back $12,000 to $18,000. This is actually a steal, considering that one of these movable feasts was the first work by a living craftsman to be included in the White House collection of American furniture -- not to mention that Maloof's work has been collected by what seems like every major museum in the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It also doesn't hurt that the octogenarian craftsman, considered the granddaddy of contemporary American furniture design, has been denominated a "Living Treasure of California" by the state's Legislature. Or that his house, filled with exquisite wooden architectonic detail and furniture Maloof's created over the years, has been declared an official historic landmark by the State of California.

I could also find a perfect spot in my private pied-à-terre (notice how this I Dream of Jeannie fantasy of mine now includes a house) for the show's settee or an equally refined drop-leaf dining table by Maloof. Crafted from walnut, the table's drop-leaf extensions have been formed into gigantic wooden hinges, each affixed to the center table with wood dowels, nary a nail in sight. And the apparent fragility of the artist's sophisticated settee for two was dispelled by Maloof himself when, at a lecture given at the museum last weekend, the artist unceremoniously picked up the settee, flipped it over and then blithely sat in it to demonstrate its solid construction ("Museum security was having a nervous breakdown," reports museum preparator Steve Johnson of Maloof's spontaneous demonstration).

Next on my acquisitions list for the many bath and powder rooms in my imaginary mansion would be several whimsical hanging vanity cabinets by Wendy Maruyama, most of which are a part of a series she's titled Lipstick Vanities. Long a lone woman in the macho enclave of bench saws and turning lathes, Maruyama has proved her mettle over the years with her art furniture, which combines graceful form, rich color and an enticing sense of humor with garden-variety utility.

Currently the head of the furniture and woodworking design program at California State University at San Diego (before that she headed up the same type of program at the noteworthy California College of the Arts in Oakland), Maruyama admits to being influenced by the work of the Memphis Group. This loose collection of industrial designers and architects based in Milan took the design world by storm in the early 1980s, disbanding in 1988. Ettore Sottsass, the European designer who gave the world the Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter, led the group, which included architect Michael Graves (who's of late been designing household goods for the Target chain). Emphasis on startling color, strong, unexpected form, the use of plastic laminate, one-of-a-kind or limited production -- all of these signature features made a Memphis design spottable a mile away.

Memphis has left its mark on Maruyama, whose pieces in this show are unmistakably female. In Dikotomos, a strip of mirror slices through two severe yet mysterious jet black shapes, which open to reveal shelves. Many of Maruyama's hanging vanities, as well as freestanding cosmetics boxes, are vaguely shaped references to lips painted in lush colors, hiding small mirrors and built-in slots for lipstick or compacts (Frogkiss, for example, is painted in bright watermelon hues of pink, lime and green, while Wild Thing, reminiscent of an organic boom box, is finished in a luscious pine green).

For the dining area of my dream house, which at this point is resembling Windsor Castle, I'd have delivered one of John Cederquist's show-stopping trompe l'oeil chests of drawers, like Steamer Chest III or maybe Conservation Chest I. Cederquist, a native Southern Californian steeped in the culture of surfing and the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney, specializes in elaborately painted furniture forms that completely throw the viewer off track. What appear to be cartoony, freestanding paintings reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e or woodblock prints of disheveled wood piles, rope-wrapped swordfish beached on wood planks, hissing steam tubes or frothy water cascading down a series of pine boxes are actually cleverly disguised and completely usable chairs, chaise lounges or chests of drawers. The artist enlists an entire forest of tree types to craft these artful pieces -- Baltic birch, Sitka spruce, maple, cherry, basswood, alder and poplar, to name just a few. The grain of all is incorporated into his meticulously executed images, painted with oil-based lithography inks and aniline dyes.

Though not technically a part of "Contemporary Art Furniture," artist Tom Eckert's Tank Chair, which is on view in the museum lobby, together with a late-19th-century tramp art desk, would have to be thrown into the shopping basket. Constructed of buttery maple laminate, Eckert's chair sports a wavy, ergonomically designed back and seat; however, its sides perfectly mimic the sprocket-fed wheels of a military tank, rendered exactingly in wood. It would be a divine decorating touch for when I'm in that Ernest Hemingway warmongering state of mind.