"Oh sweet fancy! Let her loose;/ Everything is spoilt by use," wrote John Keats at the height of the Romantic revolution. It was beyond his comprehension that ordinary, everyday, functional things could be touched by poetry.
The designers of the Bauhaus went further. Not content with stripping poetic content from functional objects, they banned the use of artistic fancy as well. Form followed function in the big chill of modern design.
But it seems that the more our life is governed by the visual traces of disembodied circuits, the more we crave tactile and metaphorical enrichment of the functional objects that surround us. Perhaps we are simply like those poor baby monkeys in the psychology experiment who preferred terry cloth mothers to wire mothers.
The current show at the Renwick, "New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers" (through Sept. 3), addresses this sensory longing directly and with breathtaking virtuosity. Its 26 pieces, all of them functional to some degree, offer a near-Victorian feast of tactile delights. In the skilled hands of a master craftswoman like Kristina Madsen, even so lowly an object as a side chair becomes an article of rare beauty and eloquence.
Made from warm-toned maple and Baltic birch plywood and padded with blue silk, Madsen's chair is a modern interpretation of a late 18th-century Philadelphia side chair in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But she borrowed the graceful finlike shape of the back from a South Pacific paddle and the seat rail's grooves from Maori decorative carving. The result is a chair with a postmodern diversity of references that can hold its own with any chair from America's past.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Edward S. Cooke Jr. a specialist in 18th-century furniture at the Boston Museum. While teaching a course called "The American Craftsman in Historical Perspective" at Boston University, Cooke discovered that contemporary craftsmen were among his most avid students. Fascinated by their interest in the American heritage, he got the idea of encouraging them to respond directly to historical pieces.
Soon after receiving his curatorial post in 1985, Cooke asked leading furniture makers to choose a single piece from the museum collection and "reinterpret history any way they'd like in a work of their own." The resulting collection is a landmark distillation of the studio furniture movement, according to Michael Monroe, chief curator at the Renwick. "By bringing together 26 mid-career individuals, it really clarifies the field and points the way to future directions," he says.
Inspired by a roll-top desk from Massachusetts, Jere Osgood's desk is the masterpiece of the show, easily surpassing its 18th-century model. Its beautifully proportioned, powerful silhouette; richly textured materials; and innovative bent and laminated structure create a new classic standard for desks. Not surprisingly, the piece was snatched up by the Renwick for the museum's own collection -- a steal at $14,000.
But the show is full of chests, sideboards, chairs and tables nearly as authoritative. Like Madsen, Richard Scott Newman, John Dunnigan, Thomas Hucker, Wendy Stayman and Rick Wrigley veer toward the neoclassic in pieces with gracefully curved contours; clear articulation of parts to whole; and subdued, delicate decoration and color.
By contrast, Judy Kensley McKie employed American Indian sources for the intertwined cat decoration of her exuberant "Leopard Chest." John Cederquist nearly abandons function altogether in his humorous meditation on a high chest by famed Rhode Island furniture maker John Townsend. Titled "Le Fleuron Manquant" (The Missing Finial") it looks more like a cubist drawing of a piece of furniture than a three-dimensional object.
The hallmark of the show is its preindustrial combination of the sensual and the poetic. These articles of furniture clearly contradict the imperatives of mass production; few if any could be adapted for the factory. Looking at them, one can almost scent the sawdust of the workshop and hear the rasping sound of hand-sanding. At a time when acclaimed art stars like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger embrace the impersonality of the mass-media message, these furniture makers conceive their tables and chairs as intimate communications from one person to another.
A second current exhibition, where furniture and art seem to reverse roles, is the traveling retrospective of Wendell Castle, through Aug. 19 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Like the late Scott Burton, Castle inhabits the blurred area between sculpture and functional furniture. The show includes some chests and tables that look like sculpture and several trompe l'oeil articles of furniture that might be quite risky to use.
An elder statesman of the studio furniture movement, Castle has a more eccentric bent than the so-called second generation at the Renwick. He belongs to the era in which artists got more satisfaction than grief from upsetting the natural order of things. "First, I like to make things that are not what they seem at first glance. ... Second, I like to create a sense of delicate balance, to create things that seem to defy gravity," Castle states in the show's catalogue. The bench he designed for the Detroit Museum (museum benches are big business in the studio furniture movement) achieves both aims. One needs a spirit of adventure to sit on its jagged, low-slung structure of brushed aluminum and wood.
These two shows underscore the absurdity of the persistent status wars between art and craft. In sophistication, breadth of references and technological prowess, Madsen, Castle and their furniture-making colleagues yield to none. In fact, the studio furniture community has developed such a high degree of skill and such a refined and esoteric language of form that often only other members of the group can fully appreciate the quality and subtlety of the work. Ironically, they may be the nearest thing to an artistic elite America has to offer today.
The first generation of American studio furniture makers, craftsmen such as Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, consisted of mavericks and dropouts from the 1950s faith in progress. Their religion was wood. Nakashima wrote an influential book titled "The Soul of a Tree."
A tight-knit group, the majority of the so-called second-generation furniture makers at the Renwick studied and/or taught together during the late '70s and early '80s in at least one of three seminal institutions: the Rhode Island School of Design, the Rochester Institute of Technology's School for American Craftsmen, and Boston University's program in artisanry. Osgood, who is something of a father figure to the second generation, taught at Rochester and in the Boston University program.
If the second-generation craftsmen are more sophisticated technically and more worldly than their spiritually minded predecessors, they absorbed the latter's passion for working long hours in the studio to achieve what they wanted.
"The '70s were a very fertile period because the idea of devotion to craftsmanship had romantic connotations," says Franklin Parrasch, a New York dealer for several of the artists in the Renwick show. "To work on a single piece for several months was considered virtuous."
Parrasch also thinks that the entrance of women into the field had a positive effect. "It took away the edge of machismo that was formerly associated with furniture and legitimized it as an art form," he says. "Furniture making was no longer just sawdust and sweaty, grunting men; it was for self-expression. This got people into furniture who might normally have headed into painting and sculpture."
During the cash-rich 1980s the burgeoning furniture movement got a large boost from new patrons. William Ziff of Ziff Publications reportedly kept a handful of the more classically minded furniture makers busy for several years making suites for the Ziffs' seven-story mansion in Pauling, N.Y. After developing an interest in studio furniture, Sydney and Frances Lewis of Best Products emptied their Richmond home of its art nouveau furnishings by donating the lot to the Virginia Museum. Over the past five years they have purchased furniture by Gary Knox Bennett, McKie, Castle and others.
Other tireless proselytizers of the studio furniture movement are Ronald and Anne Abramson of Washington. Not only have they purchased pieces by most of the artists in the Renwick show, they gave major support to the exhibition.
The question now, of course, is whether the movement can sustain the high level it has achieved in the Renwick show. Both Monroe and Parrasch believe that the artists should take more risks. "Although the show has made a big and important statement in the field," says Monroe, "I hope that the artists will make bigger aesthetic leaps."
Parrasch points to John Cederquist's chest as the trend of the future. "Cederquist is declaratively an artist," he explains. "He's not really making furniture so much as making art about furniture."
But this oft-used contemporary craft cliche -- "making art" about furniture, about pots, about textiles" -- ignores the visceral longing of the wider public for functional things that speak to the senses as well as to the mind. It would be a shame if the studio furniture makers abandoned the field to the proliferating hucksters of imitation Victoriana.