Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Object Lab Day 2 - Million Dollar Chairs and Clay

Today we spent the majority of the day at the Chipstone Estate.

First we went into a hollow beside the house,

Once situated on a really old rock wall, we read poems and quotes from very different parts of mankind. Starting with the biblical passage of Jeremiah 18:2-6, going through mythology all the way to scientists saying clay could scientifically begin life, we realized the relationship between humans and materials - specifically clay.

We then went to the house, and learned that the house was actually built in the early 1950s by a couple named the Stones who collected Early American furniture and British ceramic ware. 

They clearly caught the Williamsburg/Colonial-bug and wanted to relive the 17th and 18th century.

We learned about how ceramics and porcelain began in the Western world, originally as earthy clay ceramics made in Britain and fine porcelain made in China. 

What I found so interesting was seeing the defining characteristics this long ago (16th and 17th century) that carry over to cultural ideals. I started thinking about the delicate-ness of Asian refinement. These bowls actually were examples of real China imports and fake British made Chinese look-alikes. Something we aren't at all used to today.

Then we went into a room full of some million dollar chairs. Some were worth less, but apparently museums have gotten really jealous of this collection. 

As we started talking, I realized the greatness of the ornamentation of these types of furniture. It may have been the biggest insight of the day, but as a designer I've been indoctrinated with the Bauhaus mentality that all ornament is unnecessary. This modernist-infused thinking has come from an industrialized society that copies ornament for the sake of sales. However, these chairs had ornament for better reason than just marketing. They were way more involved in the status and personal life of their owners than we may view our furniture today. This could be a class thing - for all these chairs were owned by the upper class, which as we know think very differently than the middle class - but ornament and the way shapes were formed into each chair told a story about its owner. 

Each one of these chairs were owned by an 18th century American - So they lived in Philadelphia or Boston in the 1700s, actually before the Revolutionary War. So, what was going on in the minds of these Early Americans was establishing themselves as "new British Elite" with the clout and legitimacy that their neighbors at home had, or could marvel at. So, at this time, what could make people marvel at you? Well, first by what you were able to afford, and second probably by how impressive your possessions are. So, logically we discovered that the chairs with more carvings cost more than the simpler ones. Actually, chair customers would pay per carving! 

The other really significant thing I realized about ornamentation during this discussion was that these chairs have symbolism in their detailing that tells artistic meanings about its owner. Vase shapes in the center back, shells and dragon-and-pearl-claw feet all call symbolism to classical culture, using literature and mythology references like Venus to reflect femininity and even the power of beauty.

We then talked about some earthenwares over coffee

Actually held the first porcelain cup made in America (or one of the first, its worth a ton of money and has a cool story)

Then, we got into groups and were blindfolded and brought an object to figure out. 

We then tried to describe it to each other, and then came up with a creative description for it as if it were in a museum - only we've never actually seen it.

We named ours the "Treehouse Chair" and described it as the King of the Forest's throne that he hewed out of a tree, more on this later...

Then we shared our descriptions

Our description was:

"The Treehouse Chair: If the King of the Forests claimed a tree as his throne, he would carve a seat out of a sturdy trunk and the back of his chair would be shaded by leafy foliage. The Treehouse Chair, with its sturdy tree trunk-like three legs, its simple hewn timbers, this piece of early American furniture exemplifies how true organic craftsmanship mimics nature and its honesty to material."

 This table was originally meant as a dressing table for a bedroom.

The group thought it had earrings. 
Makes sense!

We then were given buckets!

And then went to the carriage house,

And found lunch!

And we got to eat like 18th century people, which got us on a discussion about how societies eat and find nutrition. It was fascinating, people who worked back-breaking hard labor pretty much just ate this, and didn't get much nutrients...

We also talked about how unnatural eating bread and milk-based foods is to the human body. Which was interesting to ponder... We might want to make sure we're eating balanced, and this was quite refreshing.

Then we went to an antique store! We were given 20 dollars to find a treasure that spoke to our senses, and basically we went wild

Later on we talked about how our treasure actively and meaningfully engaged us (and our senses)

And we had many interesting things, ranging from corn teapots to cast-iron elephants

and my deco-expressive pot-thing I found. (I think its a casserole dish...)
I thought it was particularly engaging because of how strong and expressive it was. It seemed like it wasn't afraid to let its energy loose, but it also had a beautiful orderliness that made me think of the speed lines found in the expressions of art deco architecture and even how the ocean's sea foam layers itself on the beach.

Also today we learned about making things!

Randy over there is an expert furniture maker,

He was showing us how to plane wood, hand-drill holes and do all sorts of furniture making like the early Americans did, without machines.

We also did pottery turning!

A hand turned lathe too!

In the end, I started to carve out a spoon, and didn't get it finished just yet. But isn't that yellow wood cool?! 

After everything today, I briefly sat down to read and found this cool quote that I think relates to what we were learning about how objects can relate to our humanity. We were learning about what ornamentation did for early Americans artistically, and if what that particular way of beauty was a personal achievement symbol or artistic expression of achievement, what implications does a thought like this have on the world of designed objects?

"And it is the brittleness and bitterness of contemporary debates about civil matters that Wolfe feels the 'intuitive language of the imagination' can and must positively contribute to. Art does this not by avoiding difficult things and emphasizing feelings, but by being an alternate mode of reasoning and understanding. Wolfe believes the arts can counterbalance the pragmatic and utilitarian ethos of political efficiency with 'the necessary contemplative space that pulls us back from the realm of action in order to send us back wiser and more fully human' [22]."  

This quote is from a larger post written by James Mccullough on an arts, culture and theology blog called Transpositions. The full article, which is a review on a book, can be found here: http://www.transpositions.co.uk/2011/10/beauty-will-save-the-world-a-review/

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