Furniture plays an important role in all our lives, so much so that we often don’t even notice it.
Have a seat. It’s time to take notice.
Tuesday ,marks the unveiling of the Leslie P. and George H. Hume American Furniture Study Center at Yale’s West Campus in West Haven.
Created in 1959, the center is a three-dimensional guide to American furniture, dating from 1650 to the present.
Many of the 1,300 pieces in the collection originally were housed in the basement of 149 York St. in New Haven. Some were moved from various spaces on the Yale campus. Others, in storage since the 1930s, have been reintegrated here. Roughly half the pieces are part of the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection.
Grand in size, accommodating more than 17,000 square feet of space on two levels, the collection takes full advantage of its new environment, easily sweeping the viewer along into its enormity and diversity.
The array is astounding.
Chests, cabinets, tables, chairs, looking glasses, grandfather clocks, chests on chests, all seminal examples of furniture from the 17th century to the present, become keen purveyors of historic, aesthetic and practical knowledge, serving both to conserve their heritage and enlarge upon it.
The display is never arbitrary, the objects achieving an extraordinary effectiveness in the way they present themselves.
Notes Patricia E. Kane, the curator of American Decorative Arts, the collection “is arranged by form and within the form by content.”
There are areas in which one readily responds to the lives of those who were involved in the creation and use of the objects.
A wall of historical tools and a workbench, for example, used by Garvan’s cabinet makers, becomes integral to the space and to our understanding of the furniture-making process. An old fireplace surround, carved with initials upon its mantle molding by former Yalies, reveals relics of lives lived.
Merely glancing down an aisle of high chests and cabinets, one can’t help but agree with John Stuart Gordon, the associate curator of Decorative Arts, when he notes that the impressive alignment of varying heights, surfaces and textures, remind him of “a cityscape ... a lovely wooden skyline.”
Some individual pieces stand out in their grandeur.
A masterpiece of the collection, for example, is the beautiful high chest made in Rhode Island in 1759 by John Townsend. Fluted corner columns, legs with eagle talons, delicate carvings, all contribute to the sophisticated elegance and design of this piece. In fact, Townsend appears to be so proud of his creation that he scrawled a signature in a drawer, a practice rarely seen at the time.
Keeping in mind the importance of the center as a teaching experience, Gordon reminds us “that we really wanted to build the idea of functionality into the program.”
To that goal there are specific areas devoted to the display of stylistic intricacies and embellishments, pointing, for example, to the variations in drawer pulls, escutcheons and markings.
So too, one can observe the different woods and finishes that took precedence during different periods, ranging from the predominance of 17th century oak to 18th century walnut to 19th century mahogany, all bringing one to the present, when socially conscious craftspeople rethink their materials with an eye to a more ecological approach to furniture making.
The collection also includes examples of European influences, as well as sculptural objects that reflect other woodworking traditions and varying aesthetics.
Prior to its installation, Gordon worried that “the furniture would look dinky in this huge space.”
To the contrary, he now points out, “It looks happy.”
One can only agree.