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May 21st, 2009
Museum Presents Exhibition Redefining the Shape and Form of Chairs


Every seat in her house was full and every room overflowing when Jeanne Rymer began donating works from her extensive modernist chair collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her generous gift is currently on view in the Collab Gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building in an exhibition titled A Taste for Modern: The Jeanne Rymer Collection of Twentieth-Century Chairs (May 16 – September 20), organized by Donna Corbin, Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts.

Jeanne Rymer, a former professor and head of the Interior Design Program at the University of Delaware, began acquiring modern chairs more than 20 years ago, displaying them in a small museum in her house.

“Chairs are Jeanne’s passion, and this exhibition displays the fun, and sometimes quirky, works she collected and then donated in 2007,” said Corbin. “There are important chairs by such well-known designers as Harry Bertoia and Jean Prouvé, but also pieces by less well-known designers like Erwine and Estelle Laverne. Her collection encompassed a little bit of everything.”

Spanning much of the 20th century, but with a special focus on works from the 1950s, the exhibition includes 23 chairs made from a striking variety of materials. A number of the designers, like George Nelson, were trained as architects. Nelson's elegant furniture designs like the "Pretzel" chair (1957)—the name a reference to the graceful curve of the single piece of wood that forms the back and arms—exerted an influence on other designers working in the period.

Several of the chair designs, such as Jens Risom's "Side Chair" (1941-1942), are simple and straightforward. Made utilizing standardized elements and Army surplus webbing, the "Side Chair" reflected a desire on the part of Knoll, the East Greenville-based furniture manufacturer, to make modern furniture accessible and affordable during World War II. When design tastes shifted during the ’50s, Knoll accommodated the change, producing Harry Bertoia’s “Bird Chair” (1953). Bertoia, who had been trained as a sculptor, experimented with space and structure in the design of his hand-welded, Vinyl-coated steel mesh chair.

Although not exhibited, the design ideas of Ray and Charles Eames permeate A Taste of Modern, as evidenced by several molded-wood chairs from several international designers. French designer Pierre Guariche explored the limits of this material in his "Le Tonneau" (“Barrel”) chair (1954-1955), the seat and back being formed from one piece of plywood.

“Jeanne Rymer’s collection documents several important trends in 20th-century chair design, from revolutionary designs seen in the bold use of color and geometric forms of the 'Memphis' series, to chairs from Danish designer Hans Wegner, that rely on a more traditional concept of the chair,” Corbin said. “The exhibition incorporates a wide range of dates, decades, prices and nationalities, displaying a broad overview of modern chair making.”

For more information: A Taste for Modern: The Jeanne Rymer Collection of Twentieth-Century Chairs

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