When Jonathan Fairbanks, now director of the Fuller Craft Museum, was a curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he was told the museum did not collect furniture pieces. It collected paintings, sculpture, “fine art.” His reply was, in essence, “I’m the curator, so we do now.”
Fairbanks, the founder and former curator of the MFA’s Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, will speak on “Furniture Made in Massachusetts: 1620 to the Present” on Sept. 15 in advance of a major show at the Fuller focusing on the contemporary school known as “studio furniture.” Works of art don’t necessarily come with their own story, Fairbanks said recently. It’s up to curators, scholars, and museum shows to provide a historical narrative for great works of art.
“They have a story to tell,” he said, “the story I will tell. It’s about changing interests over time.”
Fairbanks will discuss some of the most famous furniture produced in early America including the “great chairs” still on display at Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum. His talk will also look at the state’s history as a major furniture producer in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the birth of the studio furniture movement in the 1970s.
The great chairs belonging to Pilgrim leaders Bradford, Brewster, Winslow, and Carver are “some of the seminal pieces in the Plymouth Colony,” Fairbanks said. In the 17th century, great chairs meant seats of authority. We no longer see large, comfortable chairs as the right of major public figures, Fairbanks said, but today’s artists are still producing (and people are still seeking) “great chairs, magnificent great objects.”
While the state was an important center of furniture making in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, it has now entered an era of “post manufacturing,” Fairbanks said. Mechanized mass production, which dominated furniture making through World War II, has left the state for sites in the South and other countries. Gardner, in Central Massachusetts, was once a manufacturing center famous for making the popular Windsor chair, a wooden chair with a high spoked back and a saddle seat, better than anywhere else.
“Furniture manufacturing has departed Massachusetts with a few exceptions. Now it’s studio furniture,” Fairbanks said.
While the story of the postwar period includes the loss of the state’s manufacturing industries, it also includes the birth of studio furniture — high-quality work produced by individual artists in their own studios. “In the 1970s we didn’t know what this phenomenon was,” Fairbanks said. Young college-educated artists looking for alternative lifestyles wanted to make furniture — “a wildly romantic notion” for how to make a living.
“They decided they did not want to paint portraits, they wanted to make furniture, make silver, jewelry, vessels, metal objects,” Fairbanks said. “To me it was the most exciting thing happening in the contemporary era.”
When he gave a talk to a big gathering of designers in the ’60s, Fairbanks recalled, the paradigm was still industrial design. “They said the only direction is toward mechanization and production.”
But after establishing a department on American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA, Fairbanks bought 12 chairs handmade by Sam Maloof in California — a first-generation American, “genius grant” winner, and one of the pioneers of the new movement — for public seating at the museum. “So people knew that handcraft was still alive and well,” he said.
The show that Fairbanks’s talk prefaces, “Made in Massachusetts: Studio Furniture of the Bay State,” opens Oct. 12.
Titilayo Ngwenya, Fuller’s communications director, cited some of the pieces in this show to illustrate its range and variety, such as a colorful chair by artist Jay Stanger “designed using ergonomic principles from NASA, which attempts to capture the chaos of life.” Other examples include “a painted steel rod chaise lounge” by Eck Follen that “is impossible to sit in,” and a Steve Whittlesey’s table that includes blueberry twigs from his garden.
“Furniture makers approach basic function with a contemporary flair,” Ngwenya said. Some of the show’s more unexpected pieces include a human-size candelabra, a music stand, and a wall-hung folding chair.
She also pointed out that Fuller’s show is part of an ambitious statewide celebration of the Massachusetts’ furniture-making legacy. Called “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture,” the collaboration includes shows in 11 art and historical institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Concord Museum, Historic Deerfield, Historic New England (owners of numerous house museums), North Bennet Street School in Boston, and Peabody Essex Museum. Winterthur Museum, located in Delaware and regarded as the country’s top museum for American decorative arts, will also participate with a show displaying early pieces from Massachusetts.
Brock Jobe, a professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur and one of the collaboration’s chief founders, said, “No one has looked critically at the big picture” of Massachusetts furniture-making history before this.
Fairbanks knows Jobe’s dedication to American decorative arts well. Jobe was his intern at the MFA back in the ’70s.
“My former intern,” he said, “had this big idea.”