Knock Wood: The Future of Furniture is in their Hands

October 14, 2016

Furniture. We interact with it everyday but we really don't give it much thought, unless we're buying something new, eyeing glossy catalogues from IKEA or Design Within Reach, or when our lower back starts to twitch from sitting in the "wrong" chair. Furniture "affects every single aspect of who we are and what we do though we don't always acknowledge that," said Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, in her introductory remarks at the recent Maloof Symposium, Furniture and the Future. A stellar group of experts, designers, artists, and makers looked closely at the changing role of studio furniture, in light of the brave new world of digital technologies and marketplaces.

Held in honor of the centenary of Sam Maloof's birth, the symposium began with an homage to Maloof, the first craft artist to win a MacArthur Fellowship in 1985. He had a show at the Renwick in 2001, and his Low-Back Side Chair is currently on view in the exhibition, Connections: Contemporary Craft from the Renwick Gallery. From there, the morning was filled with talks on topics as diverse as keynote speaker Michael Prokopow's observations on hyperluxury and furniture built for the elite; a behind-the-scenes look at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with director Paul Sacaridiz; and esteemed author and architect Witold Rybczynski's deep dive into the history of the chair, stationary as well as rocking, from hand-made wooden chairs to the one-piece plastic chair that has become ubiquitous. As Rybczynski reminded us, "though chairs have changed over time, our bodies haven't, and we're only meant to sit for so long." Appropriately, on that note, the morning session ended and we rose from our seats for a lunch break.

The afternoon session, under the stewardship of independent curator Glenn Adamson, brought together an eclectic group that included Vivian Beer, winner of Ellen DeGeneres's Design Challenge, and Renwick favorites Christy Oates, a furniture maker featured in the 2012 exhibition, 40 under 40: Craft Futures, and Wendell Castle, whose great tromp l'eoil Ghost Clock is back on view in Connections. Castle kicked off the session by discussing the use of digital technologies and his studio's acquisition of a robot named "Mr. Chips" to keep things humming at a 21st century pace. The ABB6300 large robot, originally from the US Post Office and most likely used for "pick and place", is about twelve feet tall, and is used for carving. This extra hand enables Castle to create large pieces that can be assembled then disassembled precisely.

To conclude the afternoon, the participants came together for a panel discussion and lively conversation about their individual practices and their common passion for furniture and design.

In case you missed the symposium, we webcast it:

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