'Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design'

It’s not your grandmother’s rocking chair. That sleek, aerodynamic — almost windswept — chair of oil-finished bubinga wood looks more like a sculpture than an heirloom. It’s so out there, you probably wouldn’t even think of sitting in it.

“It’s a rocking chair in the purist form so that it doesn’t even matter if it you can rock in it,” says Lowry Stokes Sims, curator for New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. She’s the creator of Against the Grain, an exhibit that opened Saturday at the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

This chair, which is part of the exhibit, is the work of Wendell Castle, a New York furniture designer. In fact Against the Grain contains 90 works by almost 60 artists, designers and crafts people.

Together their wood working involves deconstructing shapes, playing with the relationships between function and form, and using woodturning and furniture-making techniques to bring furniture out of the realm of the functional into that of art and sculpture.

The antithesis of Rooms to Go, this show is the work of people who take that dresser where we keep our clothes, that chair where we lounge, that table where we eat dinner or the chest in which we lose our keys and elevate them to one-of-a-kind, museum-quality sculptures in wood.

“I am an artist and not a furniture designer,” says Courtney Smith whose piece, San Antonio, appears in the show. “They are fundamentally different beings and my intentions as an artist are fundamentally different from those of a designer,” she says.

Thus she isn’t concerned with how her creations feel to the user or if they work effectively and efficiently. “Instead, I have the luxury of art and the difficulty as well,” she says.

Her contribution to the show is one in a series of works she created from 1950s vintage dressers that she collected while living in Brazil. Here the original chest of drawers was fashioned from fine wood to imitate antique French style.

“What I did is to look at the function of the original piece and start to think of ways to subvert that function while giving it new potential,” she says from her studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

She created modules from plywood that could be added to the original cabinetry to form cubbies, drawers and shelves that actually function. These additions that came from “the language of cabinetry” were inserted into the original chest in such a way that they invaded its structure.

“By taking over its original function, the additions eventually transcended the limits of the original piece of furniture,” she explains.

As an artist, she chose plywood because it accentuated the contrast between the original solid wood construction and her replications and reproductions. “I wanted to have a contrast that would make it very clear this was not only another form that was imitating the use of the dresser but also an alien part penetrating the original piece,” she explains.

Many of the art works in the show have been created since 2000 in order to challenge the traditional designs and craft of woodworking.

Consider the work of Mark Moskovitz, a Cleveland designer who creates perfectly functional yet artful dressers based on a eureka moment in his creative life.

Moskovitz was living in Vermont where winter found him heating his house with wood. That meant he had a lot of chopping to do. One day while working with the logs, he realized that a neatly and efficiently stacked face cord of wood (less than a full cord) was more than just a source of heat. Its shapes and wood grains were sculptural.

He also determined that his carefully stacked wood was just about the size of a dresser. He put two and two together, as he says, and decided to make a dresser from that face cord of stacked wood.

His pieces often have function as well as whimsy. “But what my work is truly about is ideas and making them work,” he says.

For Facecord, he begins with a box made from good quality plywood. Then he adds maple drawers with dovetailed joints and highly engineered German hardware to make the drawers glide easily. Finally he covers the box with a “chunky veneer of mixed hard wood logs making sure the size of the finished piece is in keeping with the amount of wood someone would actually stack for heating.”

The result, which you can see in this exhibition, is a piece “that goes back to the tradition of furniture when you had secret compartments and hidden little things. But here Mark brings that part of furniture that would have been a little more discreet and puts it right up front,” explains curator Sims.

Elsewhere in the show, Gary Carsley, an Australian artist, starts with mass-produced pieces of Ikea furniture and imbues them with universal truths about nature and urbanization.

For D. 100 Wave Hill (Tree Struck by Lightning; originally commissioned by Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Centre in New York), he begins by covering standard Ikea pieces — two Gilbert chairs, the inside of a PAX wardrobe and a Frosta stool — with digitalized prints of parks. In this case, the photo includes a tree that was hit by lightning.

He then replaces the wood representations in the photo with wood grain patterns on contact adhesive paper.

Just as the Ikea furniture represents universal function, the park photo and wood contact paper represent the urbanization of nature; the tree hit by lightning represents a life cut short as well as our frail relationship to nature. “It’s a very romantic concept,” Carsley says.

If you look at this work of art as it is displayed at the museum, you’ll notice the back of the chair is covered with identical scenery as the inside of the cabinet, so it blends in and virtually disappears as it creates what Sims characterizes as a “three-dimensional painting.”

Another chair set in front of the cabinet door moves in and out of your view depending upon where you stand. These chairs, according to Carsley, remind you that all is not as it seems and that you need to look beyond the surface to see what’s really happening.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Matthias Pliessnig from his Philadelphia studio pays homage to German-born cabinetmaker Michael Thonet, whose iconic bentwood chairs helped usher modernism into 20th century, Sims said.

To create his sculpture, Thonet No. 18, Pliessnig wraps one of the classic chairs in steamed bent ash until the original is so obscured it loses its function and thus becomes art. “It now spans space like mellow sea waves,” explains Sims.

Nature is also behind Copenhagen-based Nina Bruun’s Nest chair that was inspired, you guessed it, by a bird’s nest. She curls birch strips of different thicknesses around the chair’s four legs and seat base in order to create “ ‘graphical chaos’ which still feels like a unified whole,” explains Sims.

And Japan-based Hiroki Takada’s chair is much more than just a place to sit as he transforms an everyday object into art.

In fact for his showpiece, Tea Ceremony Chair, he is inspired by whisks used in the Japanese tea ceremony. For his creation, he split individual bamboo shafts to fit into the ash wood seat of a chair so that whoever sits there is “literally enclosed in a womblike space approximating the form of the tea whisk.”

Continue exploring Against the Grain to enjoy furniture artistically crafted to transcend basic design.

“What I like about the choices I made for this show,” says Sims, “is that they take you beyond the usual ideas you probably had about what you’d see in a wood show whether it was furniture, a turned piece, a sculpture or anything else.”