The LSU Museum of Art's newest exhibit focuses on chairs.  

But these are no ordinary chairs. They are 43 works of art, all with a story to tell.

Some of the stories are in the design, others in the people who designed them, and still others in their historical significance.

"The Art of Seating: Two Hundred Years of American Design" runs through June 6 at the museum, located in the Shaw Center for the Arts. The traveling show was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida, which selected chairs from the private collection of the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen Ph.D. Foundation.

"The exhibit is called '200 years of design,' and we basically made it 300 by adding four chairs from our collection," said Courtney Taylor, the LSU MOA curator and director of programs. "The earliest chair in the Jacobsen Collection is from 1810, but we brought out a chair from our collection that goes back to 1710. It was a good opportunity to pull out things that don't get seen often from our collection, and it was good synergy between the loan and our permanent collection."

From the dynamic curves of hard steel to ultramodern seats of corrugated cardboard to chunky designs that seem almost mechanical, these chairs run the gamut of seating.

The show features such notable designer and architectural names as Frank Gehry, Gustav Stickley, Charles and Ray Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright.

There's even an 1850 spring armchair by Thomas Warren, considered the precursor to the modern office chair, and Kenneth Smythe's 2003 steampunklike "Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1 Chair."

There are chairs of note, like the House of Representatives armchair that once sat in the halls of Congress. It was designed in 1857 by Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect of the U.S. Capitol from 1851 to 1865 known for adding the Capitol's Senate and House wings and enlarging the dome. 

"Walter designed a set of these chairs for members of the House of Representatives, but there is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln sitting in one," Taylor said. "We don't know if he sat in this exact chair, but we know he sat in one like it. It also has a lot of symbolism for the new nation."

Another piece with reverent overtones is the McKinley armchair, designed by David Walcott Kendall, known as the dean of American furniture design. Kendall presented the original to President William McKinley.

On the contemporary side, the show highlights pieces like Vivian Beer's "Current," made in 2004 of steel that's bent like a wave and coated in bright blue paint, the kind usually used on cars. It, however, is not in the main exhibit.

"Not only did we add chairs to the traveling exhibit, we took chairs out of the traveling exhibit and inserted them into our permanent collection galleries," Taylor said. "We put Vivian Beer's chair in our landscape gallery because it deals with landscape and the environment, and she was really trying to make a statement about flowing water."

While the steel seat doesn't look particularly inviting, it, like all of the chairs in the exhibit, were made to be used.

"These chairs are art, but all of them were made to sit in," Taylor said. "The earlier ones would have been done by cabinet makers, who would have been devoted to making chairs. But then later, you see chairs by a lot of artist designers. There's always been this kind of up-and-down curve between handmade and industrial."

At the end of the 19th century, Taylor said, people were looking for handmade pieces as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

"When modernism hit in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, you wanted to experiment with industrial materials and buy machine made chairs again," she said. "And then it switched back in the other direction back to handmade and one-of-a-kind chairs."

Then came the 1980s, when designer chairs came into vogue and well-known architects like Gehry and Robert Venturi joined the game.

Gehry's high stool is a marvel of corrugated cardboard, Masonite and wood. 

The museum is holding a free virtual "Sit and Learn" series, featuring contemporary makers Eleanor Campbell Richards and Aspen Golann at 4:30 p.m. March 24, local chair collectors at 2 p.m. April 11 and a virtual studio visit with local chair designer Damien Mitchell at 5:30 p.m. April 29.

"We have some great programs, but we're keeping them virtual for now," Taylor said. "But the museum is a safe place to visit, and this is a great exhibit to see in person." 


The Art of Seating: Two Hundred Years of American Design

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through June 6. 

WHERE: LSU Museum of Art in the Shaw Center for the Arts, 100 Lafayette St.

ADMISSION: $5 for 13 and older. Free for university faculty and students with ID, ages 12 and younger, museum members, active duty military, first responders and their families with ID.

SAFETY: Masks are required.

INFO: (225) 389-7200 or lsumoa.org


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com