F.L. Wall makes chairs for demons, or ideas, to sit on.
Their steel-spike backs and iron pitchfork finials make standing seem safer to mere mortals. Summoning up exotic rituals, laughter just outside human hearing, they don't seem to be vicious or violent, just tuned to other scales, shaped for other bodies.
Wall doesn't expect people to sit on his chairs -- if that is what they are. He thinks he's making sculpture. And so does Franz Bader, whose exhibit of Wall's work at Bader Gallery (2001 I St. NW) closes tomorrow.
The woods are often elegant -- American walnut, Asian rosewood -- and as carefully joined as if Mr. Chippendale were his client. The metal parts, Wall says, are "found objects mostly, from a junkyard in Delaware." Not all pieces in the show are chair shapes. One is a table that has unaccountably grown teeth.
Wall learned he was a sculptor when he studied at the Corcoran School of Art with Berthold Schmutzhart, head of the sculpture department. "He gave me permission to make art," Wall says. "At last I knew I didn't have to make my chairs functional -- a good thing, since I was making tall, spooky chairs that weren't exactly comfortable."
Not that Wall, once a restorer and reproduction cabinetmaker, doesn't know how to make a Queen Anne chair one can sit on with dignity if not comfort. He just doesn't want to.
He also didn't want to go abroad and make spy furniture for the CIA. Perhaps hearing that he did spooky furniture, they made him a handsome offer to be their cabinetmaker for secret drawers, electronic bedbugs and tables and chairs with ears as well as legs.
Wall made a lot of things before becoming a sculptor -- including a dog coffin. "When I first set up as a woodworker, I'd do anything that came in the door," he says.
That was 13 years ago, when he and his wife Judy moved to Williamsburg so she could get her law degree at William and Mary. He had been teaching driver education. "That's because I majored in Spanish at the University of Delaware." But in that historic area with more four-legged than four-wheeled vehicles, driving teachers were not in great demand, so Wall looked around to see what was needed.
Restoration and reproduction are the major industries in Williamsburg -- just the thing for Wall and the hundreds of dollars worth of tools he'd bought to make bookshelves in a rented apartment. He soon found his niche.
"I'd had no interest in antiques, but I was impressed with the way the 18th-century cabinetmakers joined chairs," he says. "I studied everything I could, and it turned out that I had a talent for making accurate restorations. Without apprenticing, I learned by trial and error and was free to develop my own sense of things. I worked my way through Queen Anne, Chippendale and Shaker. I skipped the Victorians, and went right to Nakashima," the Japanese/American wood master of New Hope, Pa.
Before long Wall was making chairs that looked like early Frank Lloyd Wright, although at that stage he'd never heard of him. "But when I discovered Charles Rennie Mackintosh the Scottish Art Nouveau architect and furniture designer , he was what I'd been looking for." Wall's chair sculptures take Mackintosh's eerie forms one step further into Hades.
Nine years ago, Judy Wall became a lawyer with the Internal Revenue Service, freeing her husband from the restraints of earning a regular salary. He has his studio in the garage and half of the basement in their house in Arlington, teaches two classes at the Corcoran and works as a consultant to Time-Life Books' home series.
When he was a little boy in Delaware, Wall took things apart. "I guess now I'm making up for it by putting things together," he says.