This week, the Viking Union Gallery will unveil a unique exhibit that puts a special emphasis on an everyday object. The gallery will display significant pieces from Western’s collection of modern and historical chairs.
The exhibit is the fruition of a dream that Western senior and industrial design major Samuel Martin harbored for years. Martin first came into contact with the chair collection during an introductory-level history of design course, and has since developed an extraordinary passion for the collection. He has spent over two years trying to organize an exhibit showcasing the chairs, but struggled to find an open gallery time slot. Now, in his senior year at Western, Martin has finally succeeded in booking the exhibit.
Hannah Fenske, the VU Gallery director, said she was instantly intrigued when Martin approached her about bringing the chair collection to the gallery.
“When I got in and first saw the chair collection, I got super excited, because they’re really cool. They’re all very different; some of them are very colorful; they’re completely different shapes and sizes,” Fenske said. “If you’re not an industrial designer, or someone who builds or makes chairs, you don’t really appreciate them, you don’t realize that you’re sitting in a work of art.”
Even to people with an interest in industrial design, Western’s extensive chair collection can be an astonishing thing to discover. Aidan Borer, a junior industrial design major who serves with Martin on the student chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America and helped Martin curate the exhibit, said when he first discovered the collection, he was completely shocked at what he saw.
“I was just blown away by the wealth of artifacts of design history that we have here at the university that really nobody knew about. With this show, it was really important to Samuel and myself that we showcase this, and bring them out into the light so people can see it and experience it,” Borer said.
The collection is comprised of more than 50 chairs, and according to Martin, many of the chairs are still in production despite being designed hundreds of years ago.
Sarah Clark-Langager, the director of the Western Gallery and curator of both Western’s chair collection and the outdoor sculpture collection, said the chair collection was started by the head of the Western’s now-defunct home economics department to give students inspiring examples of design to reference while they worked.
“If you went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in San Francisco, their departments would have the same chairs, [these are] famous chairs by famous designers,” Clark-Langager said.
The exhibit was carefully curated by Martin, Borer and other members of the student chapter of the IDSA, and will feature roughly 20 chairs from the collection.
Fenske said the exhibit was selected to showcase the chairs that have big reputations and will be easily recognizable, are attached to significant designers, have made a major impact on the design world, or, as is the case with some of the chairs in the collection, are featured in classrooms around Western.
Borer said he hopes the exhibit will give viewers the chance to reconsider how they perceive many of the objects that surround them.
“We tend to live in a very materialistic culture and we’re just surrounded by products in our lives and inundated with them, but most people give very little thought or consideration to where those objects come from,” Borer said. “To look at these things and learn about the stories behind these chairs I think might spur people to look at their silverware and wonder about who designed that fork and look at the light next to their bed and ask the same questions about that.”
Martin said he hopes the display of chairs, which is something he is extremely passionate about, can inspire people to find ways to share the things they are passionate about.
“I really want people to know that they could be throwing these types of community organizations themselves,” Martin said. “I just consistently reinforce the fact that there’s the opportunity to organize an event like this and show a bit of your passion.”
Up until the debut of the exhibit, the chair collection was housed in a locked room in the art department.
“They’re on racks on the walls and kind of stacked up and not very well displayed, they’re more just kind of stored in there, which is unfortunate because it’s a wonderful collection,” Fenske said.
Martin said he is eagerly anticipating seeing the chairs out of storage and on display.
“It’s sounds silly, I suppose, but [I’m excited about] just giving these objects an opportunity to shine,” Martin said. “A lot of these pieces are a lot older so you can see the wear, you can see the character, and I’m very excited to see what that looks like out of the collection and in a well-lit, groomed space.”
The exhibit opens April 29 and runs through May 17. On Wednesday, May 1, there will be opening reception with refreshments, desserts and coffee. The exhibit is free and is open every weekday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
After the chairs finish their run at the VU Gallery, Martin said he is working to find a place to store them where they can be on display instead of behind a locked door. While nothing is finalized yet, Martin said he hopes to have the chairs on display in either the industrial design department or the art department within the next few years.
For those who see the exhibit and become as entranced with the collection as he is, Martin encouraged anyone who is interested in learning more about the industrial design program to contact Arunas Oslapas, the Industrial Design Program Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.