Women Chairmakers Get a Seat at the Table

The SIDE Chair Library at Salem College in North Carolina is a collection of nearly 50 chairs considered historically important in their design, offering students a unique learning resource. But curator Rebecca Juliette-Duex found one area in which this index was lacking.

“Less than a handful [of the chairs] are attributed to women,” Juliette-Duex, the 2023 Gondring artist-in-residence at the Sawtooth School for Visual Arts, told Hyperallergic. “This is an unfortunate comment on whom we elevate and whose voices are heard.”

This seems especially noteworthy considering that Salem College is the nation’s oldest female educational establishment that is still functioning as a women’s college, and according to Juliette-Duex, the design students interacting with the chairs in the library are overwhelmingly female. Accordingly, Juliette-Duex curated Seating Assignment: Women in Contemporary Chairmaking and Craft Education. The forthcoming exhibition, presented in partnership with the SIDE Chair Gallery and Sawtooth’s Eleanor and Egbert Davis Gallery, seeks to give women chairmakers a seat at the table.

“My experience in the furniture world showed me that there is a robust and showroom-ready population of women who are considering gender and breaking down barriers in furniture design right now,” said Juliette-Duex. The show presents the work of 15 women chairmakers, each of whom offers her perspective and engagement with the history of the form.

“Some are interested in narratives surrounding furniture, others focused on manipulation of materials, and still others who are pushing design ideas forward in their work,” said Juliette-Deux. “There’s need and room for all of these perspectives.”

Joyce Lin, for example, presents “Exploded Chair” (2019), a study that uses organic material as a starting point, but augments the original form with synthetic materials in a paradoxical attempt to preserve the object in perpetuity. The result is a dismantled form, floating in a matrix of clear plastic.

Red Diamonds” (2022) by Annie Evelyn is an example of the artist’s signature fiber flourishes, with her chair trailing upholstery behind it like a luxurious dress train. When someone is seated in the chair, it presents an illusion of a ball gown trailing around them.

“People’s familiarity and comfort with chairs provide the perfect platform for engagement and communication,” Evelyn told Hyperallergic. “I want to connect with others, learn about myself, and create joy. The ‘chair’ as a medium of expression allows my users a point of entry. That, combined with its relationship to the human form, is what interests me.”

Several pieces in the exhibition contain optical illusions, such as “Rebel Rebel” (2017) — a ladderback chair by Sophie Glenn that appears, at first glance, to be entirely traditional in its construction. Closer examination reveals that Glenn, a metalworker, has constructed the chair from rusted and painted steel and annealed wire, uncannily transforming the materials and subverting the expectations around the work.

These are just a few of the works in Seating Assignment, running from March 23 through May 11 at the Eleanor and Egbert Davis Gallery. The show promises to present a vision that entices viewers to stand and applaud.

“At its heart, this exhibition is about collaboration — between Salem College and Sawtooth, between the artists and students, between craft and the community,” said Juliette-Duex. “Alone, our voices are fighting for attention. Together, we are a choir of beautiful harmonies that can be heard above the noise.”

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