In 1871 during the Chicago fire, a wise family buried its highly carved Victorian furniture to keep it from being consumed. The house burned to the ground but the living room suite (reupholstered) sits grandly today in the Renwick Gallery.
"Chicago Furniture: Art, Craft, & Industry, 1833-1983," a massive exhibit of 165 pieces of furniture, takes over the entire lower floor exhibition space in the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery through April 7.
The exhibit covers an amazing diversity of styles, many of them coexistent. Its chaste beginning is a simple 1830s frontier bird's-eye (pin) maple and walnut crib. From there, things are considerably more complicated. Victorian ornament is so heavily represented as to make you as ill as if you'd eaten a horsehair sundae. Arts and Crafts Movement furniture of Frank Lloyd Wright and friends helps stabilize the viewer's eye in time to appreciate the late, late show Art Moderne skyscraper chairs and cabinets in the last gallery of the show.
By the 1880s, despite the alleged misdeeds of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, rebuilding was so palatial Chicago's Praire Avenue was called "the sunny street that holds the sifted few." By 1899, Chicago's prosperity inspired Thorstein Veblen, a University of Chicago economist, to coin the golden phrase "Conspicious Consumption."
The vast majority of the Renwick show is devoted to this ebullience. The incredible bridal suite from the Palmer House hotel is the ultimate, even compressed onto a platform in the Renwick. The elaborately carved, ebonized and gilded bed with its green canopy "in the French Style," hangs over golden faces on the soaring headboard. The footboard is actually a sofa, obviously designed for pre-bed romps. The dressing table held up by gilded caryatids and guarded by fierce cats is also ornamented with incised figures. The desk is a marvel of gilded swoops and curlicues.
An 1876 brochure shows the furniture in its setting with ornate chandeliers, many side chairs, marble-topped tables and washstands, and immense, heavily draped windows, not to mention a fireplace with a enormous window facing the bed. (The bridal suite is shown being decorously enjoyed by a me'nage a cinq -- two men and three women.)
In the last decade of the 19th century, spurred by the examples in the women's pavilion of the Philadelphia Centennial, educated women became interested in the crafts. Not only could they make beautiful and individual objects for their own home, but also they could make money. On from needlework, some branched out into pottery and porcelain painting. In the 1870s, the inexpensive and comparatively lightweight scroll or fret saw, both foot-operated and hand-held, became popular for home cabinetmakers.
The show's curator, Sharon Darling, in the accompanying catalogue, quotes the 1878 "Beautiful Homes": "Cheap luxury is easily obtained in this day by any woman who possesses the use of hands and head." One pattern book offered 300 designs. The sale of jigsaw blades hit 500,000 a month.
The jigsaw often cut furniture in the Anglo-Japanese style, the precursor of Art Nouveau, represented by a few ebonized pieces in this exhibit.
Perhaps in a reaction to la-di-da decoration, in the 1890s Bert Chapman's rustic furniture made of tree branches grew on the public. A stand made of twigged branches painted black and gold looks like a flagellatory mace.
Horn furniture butted in from 1870 to 1890. Tobey Furniture Co. used cattle, buffalo and elk horns to make legs, arms and backs of parlor suites. Darling quotes a reporter of the time as saying "those chairs with polished horn for backs . . . are as modern as the Texas cowboy and as inimitable."
Though elaborate, wicker furniture -- high fashion for late 19th-century orangeries -- is less offensive to the eye than either the ornately carved or the tortured rustic. A charming tiered wicker whatnot stand, enameled brick and maroon, seems reassuring in a room full of dangerous furniture. Wickerworks persisted into this century, represented here by a 1926 fiber rush armchair, stool, desk, table and chair in the Art Moderne manner.
The Arts and Crafts Movement (1881-1917) broke like dawn after some particularly nightmare-filled dark hours. The simple, sturdy furniture and decorative arts, often made of oak, pewter and brass, is sometimes called Mission Style. Here again, Chicago women were instrumental in its move there. The romantic but natural style began among William Morris and the other Pre-Raphaelites in Britain and the Secessionists and Weiner Werkstatte of Vienna.
Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, Darling said, caught the bug in England and came back to organize the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society and encourage new immigrants to make and sell "beautiful things with their own hands." The mystique was bound up in an effort to revive the medieval guild system and lessen the cuts machines were making into design. Among the founders were Frank Lloyd Wright, who, speaking of dangerous furniture, once said "I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contact with my own early furniture."
Wright, the greatest of all Arts and Crafts architects and designers, is responsible for several pieces in the show. A fine slat back chair stands for decades of Wright thinking. The architect designed the useful walnut sewing table with its inlaid measurements for the parents of Elizabeth Ferry Coonley Faulkner and her Washington architect sons Avery Coonley (named for his grandfather) and Winthrop Faulkner.
Art Moderne (the maiden name of Art Deco) came to Chicago with the end of World War I. From 1929 comes perhaps the handsomest suite in the show -- chairs and a table designed by Hal Pereira for the dining room of Marjorie Hopkins. The ebonized table and chairs with curvilinear leaves of pewter inset shows the transition from the whiplash curve excesses of Art Nouveau on its way to the hard-edged geometric excesses of Modern. This suite has the most graceful attributes of both styles. Hopkins had been a stage designer, and Pereira became a designer for United Artists in Los Angeles.
When Hitler came into power in Germany and Austria, designers from the Bauhaus school came to this country. Among the greatest represented in this show are artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who tried to establish a New Bauhaus in Chicago; architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who designed the famous North Lake Shore apartments, furnished with locally manufactured Barcelona chairs (designed by Mies with Lilly Reich); and Wolfgang Hoffmann, a furniture designer who was the son of Viennese designer and architect Josef Hoffmann.
Today, most of the big furniture manufacturers have moved South, though the famous Chicago Merchandise Mart still flourishes.
For some years, scholars ignored the remarkable history of 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts. But today, that story of a fascinating period of design is beginning to be written. This show is a comprehensive early chapter of a diverse production from a city of diversities. All furniture buffs owe a debt to the Chicago Historical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Henryette and Marcus Cohn of Washington and the show's other sponsors.