More than ever, it seems we could all use a comfy chair to curl up in, and the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie’s “Furniture as Art” exhibit is offering a well-furnished living room to do so through March 12.
“Four exhibits in one highlight the items that bring comfort and beauty to our lives,” says the postcard that outlines the four sections: “Please be Seated: Furniture by Contemporary Designers,” “On These Walls: Paintings of Interior Scenes,” “Rustic Regional Windsor Chairs,” and “Furniture from the Museum Collection.”
Ellarslie Mansion, an Italianate villa, is the perfect setting for this comforting exhibit — and yes, you can sit in these chairs, and you can touch. The oils from your hands enhance the wood’s patina, says curator Carol Hill. The air is redolent of linseed oil, used in both the paintings and the furniture finish, a scent that marries the two.
The first-floor exhibition explores the role furniture plays in our homes and lives. Kyle Stevenson’s painting, “Sam’s Chair,” offers a red slip covered club chair in an otherwise white room that beckons one to collapse into it. I do not know Kyle Stevenson personally, but if his home resembles anything like the settings of his paintings, I want to snooker an invitation.
Furniture is both decorative and functional, as many of the paintings show, such as a woman cozily reading on a sofa in a brownstone in Robert Beck’s “Corner Apartment,” to Queen Ann chairs gathered for a conversation among amber glowing lamps in Joseph Gyurcsak’s “Vizcaya Sitting Room.”
Surrounding the finely made furniture, many paintings show empty rooms, from Myles Cavanaugh’s double sink in “Artist Studio” to a bed in disarray in Ekaterina Popova’s “Sylvie’s Room II.” In the absence of people, the furniture tells the story. Did Sylvie have to leave suddenly, after a visit from her lover?
Louis Russomanno’s “Parlor Chair” lets us know who’s the boss of the house: a contented cat holds forth on a plush chair, draped with a white fringed throw, in a room of grand architectural proportions. The windows and doorways are what might be featured in Architectural Digest magazine. Russomanno made them up, he says, and even went so far as to paint one of his own landscape scenes in the window. The things we do for cats!
Stories are everywhere here, and appropriately David Robinson, who has a Trenton studio and whose rustic furniture can be seen from New York’s Central Park and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., to the pergola just outside the front entrance to Ellarslie, has created a “Story Chair.” Made from apple wood, with a back that comes to a peak like something fitting an enchanted forest, it could seat one teller and three little listeners. (Several of Robinson’s birdhouses are for sale starting at $50.)
Nearby is Popova’s “Our Story,” a painting of a dining room with blue walls and a red tablecloth. No people sit at this table, and yet we can sense the family — one for whom gathering for holidays and meals is important, yet is perhaps too busy to have time to relax around the table. In the corner is a glimpse of the kitchen, a setting for even more stories only hinted at.
As far as stories go, Trenton artist Mel Leipzig’s painting “Ibsen Bust, Paul Field Studio, Orleans” is more like an epic novel — one could spend weeks exploring the nuances, gleaning its meanings. The large interior has several seating arrangements, with a short-haired woman, bare feet propped up on the sofa, in the foreground, and a young mother and two sons in a second seating area in the rear.
The children are reading books — one is wholly absorbed while the other rests the book on his lap, gazing into air, perhaps inventing his own stories. Both groups are surrounded by portraits on the wall and sculpted busts on the shelves—there’s a crowd in this intimate space, and one senses something going on for each. As if that weren’t enough, at the center is a rocking chair that looks as if the person just got up and walked off the canvas — one can almost sense the chair still rocking.
Thomas Kelly of Hamilton, who has several paintings in the show, says “Since most of my paintings are not from direct observation, not from an actual room, I must take the furniture very seriously. I usually have to design it myself and make up the styles, patterns, placement, and construction.” Having built simple furniture, he believes “sofas should look comfortable, beds inviting, and lamps provide just enough light.”
A beautiful chair or fancy bed can be just as interesting as a figure, he adds. “A lot of my interiors are from memories of what I have seen or places I have lived. I have a bow window in ‘The Houseman’ because there was one in my house growing up. I also grew up with hardwood floors and many houseplants so they always seem to find their way into my paintings. People often ask where items in my paintings come from. They are all things I have seen and liked, filed away and just waiting to be painted.”
He also likes to show artwork on walls because he believes that is necessary for a home. “The interiors in my paintings are rooms in which I would be comfortable myself.”
Ellarslie board member, fine arts committee member, and curator Carol Hill points to the painting that was the germ of the show, a portrait of her daughter, Donna Krupa, by Robert Sakson. In the painting is a chair that Sakson featured in many of his paintings, and in fact the very chair is in the gallery, alongside the painting — as if a movie star had jumped off the screen.
While that chair, upholstered in a tapestry-like cloth, is from the 1800s, all the other furniture on the first floor is contemporary, made by area artists. Robert Whitley, 92, of Solebury, Pennsylvania, is represented here with his chair for the Smithsonian Institute, appropriately named the Whitley Rocker.
Whitley’s commissions include a chess set presented by President Richard Nixon to the Soviet Union (now in the collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia), a re-creation of President John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office desk for the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston, and the restoration of several important pieces at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he has served as master conservator. He is a third-generation craftsman.
The youngest furniture maker here is 20-year-old Jake Rosser, whose “Convertible Table” made from cherry, walnut, and maple opens from a cabinet into a coffee table. “Sometimes you need an end table and sometimes you need a coffee table, so why choose one?” says Rosser, who works from his father’s shop when he’s not away at school in Massachusetts. His designs have also been seen at Art All Night.
An exhibit of Trenton-area woodworkers would not be complete without representation from George Nakashima and his grandson, Satoru “Ru” Amagasu. When curator Hill was a student at Trenton Junior College in 1958, majoring in fine arts (she later went to Pratt, then earned a degree in art education from the College of New Jersey in 1973), she made furniture while studying with John Charry. It was through Charry that she learned about Nakashima, and in fact Hill purchased her wood from Leedom Lumber in Yardley, Pennsylvania, where Nakashima was also known to shop. Later she went to a museum in New York and saw a table made by Nakashima from the book mate of a slab she had used for a table.
Considered one of America’s foremost furniture designers, Nakashima valued the relationship between man and tree. He published his ideas in “The Soul of a Tree” in 1981, a woodworker’s reflections on listening to the wood.
“The love for the nature of teak and walnut can best be obtained by working with the material; by cutting, planing, scraping and sanding the wood,” wrote Nakashima, whose enchantment with the forms and spirit of the natural world evolved in the Pacific Northwest of his childhood. “The hours spent by the true craftsman in bringing out the grain, which has long been imprisoned in the trunk of the tree, are themselves an act of creation. He passes his hand over the satiny texture and finds God within.”
Amagasu, who had trained with his grandfather since his boyhood, knew how to use the ancient Chinese and Japanese technique of butterfly joints that his grandfather adapted for decorative use. “Live edge” is the term for the style of dining and coffee tables developed by Nakashima in the 1950s that exposes the raw edge of the flitch, or tree slab.
There is a small Nakashima chair made for a child on loan from the family of that long-ago child, as well as several loaned by Amagasu. There is even a table Nakashima and Amagasu made together when Ru was a boy.
At opposite ends of the far gallery sit two sets of cafe table and chairs, one made by grandfather and one by grandson. There are similarities and differences — Nakashima closed up blemishes in the wood with butterflies, Amagasu leaves them as is. Nakashima often used local woods, and Amagasu used exotic woods such as bubinga, ash, and walnut (most likely sourced from Willard Brothers in Trenton, where Amagasu once had a shop).
Hill says Amagasu told her his Conoid chairs — thus named in 1957 by Nakashima, who designed them for his conical studio — are more comfortable than his grandfather’s, and this writer, who made a thumping noise falling into the grandfather’s low chair, can attest to that.
Jeffrey Green worked for Nakashima before going off on his own. Here he has a sleek wood table with a steel base. Geoffrey Noden creates cabinets and bowls with inlays so complex it is hard to imagine how they were made by human hands. Screens by Tom Sommerville are also inlaid with various woods.
Ted Ross, who established his West Windsor woodshop after retiring from a corporate career, has moved parts of his own living room into Ellarslie for the duration of the exhibit — a sleek modern credenza, CD holder, candle holder, and another cabinet.
“I’ve been coming here all my life,” says curator Hill, who lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Growing up in Ewing, she visited Ellarslie and Cadwalader Park when monkeys and bears, not fine art, were the attractions. After doctor visits, her mother would treat her with a visit to her “friends” — the animals. When it became a fine art museum she started volunteering and has stayed during three regimes — including being locked out when Tony Mack served as Mayor of Trenton.
Earlier, Hill taught at South Hunterdon High School, then ran her own advertising agency, Studio Associates, working with retail stores and professionals. In 2008 she worked for Trenton Printing in sales and design until retiring in 2013. Now she devotes herself to Ellarslie and the Ewing Historical Society. “I only sleep in Newtown,” she says.
The museum has been directorless since last month, but the Trenton Museum Society has a new president. Joan Perkes, formerly vice president of the Trenton Museum Society, has been a member of the society since 2014 and chairs the exhibitions committee. For 47 years she was an art dealer, placing artists in galleries, helping artists with career development, and building collections. For the furniture exhibit she accompanied Hill to the artists’ studios. She was so pleased to see how the exhibit came together. “Hanging the show is the final voice,” says Perkes. “It is the single most important thing, and is what gives the viewer a feeling about the show.”
When asked if she is still making furniture or art, Hill holds her hands up to the walls around her. “This is my art.”
On the museum’s second floor, “Furniture from the Permanent Collection” features furniture from the collection of the Trenton Museum Society — antique furniture made in and associated with Trenton. “Rustic Regional Windsor Chairs” includes a collection of early Windsor chairs loaned by private collectors.
“The Windsor chair was the most popular style of Early American chair,” according to TMS trustee and curator of the exhibit David Bosted. “The first American Windsor chair is believed to have been made here in the Delaware Valley in 1730.” About a dozen pre-1850 Windsor Chairs are on view along with a half-dozen Colonial-revival reproductions.
Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Parkside and Stuyvesant avenues, Trenton. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m. Pay what you will admission. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.
Sunday, February 19: “On These Walls,” a gallery talk by participating visual artists. Free. 2 p.m.
Sunday, February 26: “Please Be Seated,” a discussion with participating woodworkers. Free. 2 p.m.
Sunday, March 12: “Rustic Windsor Chairs,” a presentation by curator David Bosted. Free. 2 p.m.