Sitting down is now an artful affair at Old Cowtown Museum.
At least that’s what organizers of the new display, “Have a Seat: Historic Chairs 1825-1895,” are aiming for. The show, which opened last week in the Empire Hall Exhibit gallery, showcases ornate, intricate and crafty chairs from yesteryears. Many of the styles can be traced to fashion trends today.
“Beauty can be found in a lot of different things. I think it’s interesting that something as ordinary and utilitarian as a chair can have inherent beauty,” said Cowtown Executive Director David Flask. “We sit on ordinary chairs all the time. Over the centuries, people have designed something as plebian as the chair with a certain style, though.”
The exhibit aims to augment that sense of style and also to tell the history of decorative furniture. The masses haven’t always been seated in style. Ordinary people used to sit primarily on backless chests, benches and stools. Chairs were reserved for dignitaries, such as kings, lords and bishops, and often were framed by immaculate canopies. Some of the commonplace sitting styles of today have ancient roots. The folding lawn chair can be traced back to Roman times, when the X-shaped seat known as the “curule” came in vogue. An example of such a fixture is on display.
Flask said he hopes people who visit will take in an appreciation for the history of simple objects. The seats themselves were mostly rounded up from existing Cowtown displays or from on-site storage. Three came from a private collection.
“Part of what we aim to do with this gallery space is go in-depth to explore how things operated in that era,” he said. “It adds value when we can highlight a collection of pieces in a cohesive manner.”
Flask and his staff did extensive research to find out fun and interesting facts that accompany each of the dozen chairs on display. An information card accompanies each work to detail the style and history of how and where the piece was manufactured, as well as a general description of the design era.
Some of the first objects likely to catch visitors’ attention are the horn chairs. Framed by horns from Texas longhorn cattle, the Angora goat skin cushions and flowery stools that accompany evoke a uniquely Southwestern style. They were designed by Wenzel Friedrich, whose patrons included Queen Victoria. Priced at $50 at the time, they would sell for $1,182 today. Flask noted that a similarly fashioned sofa by Friedrich recently sold at a London auction house for $55,000.
A walk through the hall is a front-row seat to how sitting unfolded in the 19th century. A Rococo Revival arm and side chair stand proudly side by side. Introduced in America in the 1840s and remaining popular through the 1860s, the work is highly ornate and heavy on decorative detail. The style was common in parlor and bedroom furniture. Exaggerated curved shapes distinguish the two seats on display.
A grand white wicker rocker also is featured. It showcases a popular form of woven rattan, fashionable for indoor and outdoor use in the latter decades of the 1800s. Other notable designs include a Renaissance revival dining chair, a curved and colorful American Empire parlor chair and an elegant Eastlake parlor chair.
The chairs will be on display through Feb. 25.
“I hope it makes people look at ordinary objects a bit more closely,” Flask said of the show. “This is something truly unique and different.”