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JOEL Joel's Blog

Utopian Benches - We Sit Together


Utopian Benches - We Sit Together  4I was unable to go to the opening for the bench exhibit that I reported on last week but last Saturday my son and I walked to Chelsea, had an early lunch at Don Giovanni's, (coal fired pizza oven - totally awesome; I hadn't been there in years) and then walked to the Murray Guy Gallery on 17th Street. The weather was really nice and on the way we passed a few dozen restaurants crowded with couples having a post-Friday-night-date brunch (been there - done that). Why anyone would choose waiting in line for trendy Eggs Something and fries when they could have spectacular coal fired pizza and an espresso in a very uncrowded setting is beyond me. In any case, we arrived at the gallery prepared to be enlightened, to be entertained, and to sit down.

It's easy to be cynical and say that all this exhibit is just a pretentious way of selling expensive copies of common wooden benches that you and I could build in an afternoon. And let's face it, I think modern art has pretty much Utopian Benches - We Sit Together  5hit a dead end and mostly talks to itself.

But this exhibit is a welcome exception!.

The exhibit consists of seventeen benches arranged in a grid in a large airy room. It's pretty obvious from the second you walk in the door that these furniture objects are displayed as "Art" so your first inclination is to walk respectfully around them and try to get a sense of the visual. While all the benches do the same thing, they all look different. There are different forms of joinery, differences in size, profile, and decoration. Big deal unless you are a woodworker, but it's not the point anyway.

Utopian Benches - We Sit Together  6Eventually you sit down. Typically you sit down on the closest bench. And of course you try to form an opinion. Is this a good bench? What makes it special? Do you want to build it? You wiggle your butt against the bench and then get up and sit in another bench and do the same thing. This gets boring.

Then you start talking to someone, and since there are all these benches around, the natural inclination is to sit down and talk. In my case, I had a very interesting conversation with my son and then with Janice Guy, one of the gallery owners. As the conversation progressed, we moved seats a couple of times, and the point of the exhibit became clear. This show isn't about a bunch of benches. Sure, it's convenient to see them all in one place, and we all have favorites. What's important is how we react with a group of benches. If you have a long bench, people can sit next to each other without really having to talk to each other. With two opposing benches, you could easily have a conversation. Benches, unlike dining chairs and sofas, speak to the communal. A single seat chair is about the person sitting in it. A room of benches is about how groups of people interact -- and that's what this exhibit is really about.

Utopian Benches - We Sit Together  7The original benches on which these copies are based were largely made of whatever wood each particular utopian community had floating around. The artist, Francis Cape, originally trained as a woodcarver and now has pieces in many museum collections. In keeping with the spirit of original manufacture, he made the benches out of local poplar that grew on his property. The benches in the show are for sale, but - true to the concept of the show - the benches are offered as "small gatherings" of at least three. And this is genius. Think of it in the context of a home. A single bench up against a wall or something is a plebeian piece of functional furniture handy for sitting when you're taking your boots off. A "small gathering of benches" in a den or living room begs to be sat on, rearranged, and and made into a social focus of an area. For me, the most important takeaway from the show is how the way furniture can make people interact. I'm usually so focused on the details of a piece that it's pretty easy for me to forget the context of how the end users will use the furniture when it's in situ.

The gallery is now on summer hours and is closed on the weekends, but I urge you to take a walk over and go see this exhibit. The details of the different designs of benches reflect when and who made them, and these details are worth considering. But more important, try to get a sense of the benches as a group.
Join the conversation
07/04/2013 Jeremy
Great topic! This helps explain why architects like FLW and G&G designed houses AND the furniture to drive how the whole functions. You mention how this context drives certain interactions, I wonder if there are contexts that change with culture or time. Likewise, can we understand these contexts better to design pieces that subconsciously encourage or discourage activities?
07/26/2013 Nick Royal
I read about the benches and gallery show in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel. If I lived in NYC, I'd be sure to visit the Gallery.
The benches sound very interesting...and the history with them.

Do they get sold after the show?
Nick Royal
Santa Cruz, CA
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