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Michigan exhibit shows why a chair can be more than a place to sit


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: There can be a lot more to a chair than just a place to sit.

Jeffrey Brown explains for our arts and culture series, "Canvas."

Jeffrey Brown: Pull up a chair. Maybe this one? Actually, these aren't for sitting just now. They're part of an exhibition titled "With Eyes Opened" at the Cranbrook Art Museum outside Detroit, where even the storage vault looks like a history of American design.

Often, in a story, we do what we call a "stand-up." I look straight to the camera, tell you where we are, give you some other information.

For a story like this, though, I have to make it a "sit-down." We all use these things every day, all the time. But how many of us think about how they came to be?

Andrew Blauvelt: The chair is just an archetypal thing, right? There's so many different kinds of chairs.

Jeffrey Brown: Museum director Andrew Blauvelt curated the exhibition.

Andrew Blauvelt: They're utilitarian. They're symbolic. They can be individual. They can be shared.

And you find it all across cultures around the world. And so, I think it's just one of those touchstones that is just a given, that everyone has to design a chair.

Jeffrey Brown: They certainly have at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the school being celebrated here for its influence on art and design.

Founded in 1932, this was and is a place that honors the act of using your hands to make things, with a creative twist. The exhibition features work by its graduates over the years: giant earrings by Tiff Massey. Textiles, including the Forecast Rug, by Marianne Strengell. Sculptures by Nick Cave, and -- so very life-like -- Duane Hanson.

There's painting, photography, and much more.

Above all, the school is known for its impact on American design, helping define the so-called mid-century modern look -- think "Mad Men"-- that influenced design to this day.

Andrew Blauvelt: This kind of streamline forms are very commonplace today.

Jeffrey Brown: Sometimes, says Blauvelt, a chair is more than just a chair.

Andrew Blauvelt: The social and the emotional. So, the social --

Jeffrey Brown: The emotional?

Andrew Blauvelt: The emotional, too, right? That's the newest kind of revelation. That also happened here at Cranbrook, where you started thinking about the emotional register. For so long, designers were obsessed with rational things like, "what is the proper size of the body?" And those are important things.

But we realized that the average person connects with design on an emotional level. So, behind me, there's the famous Eames lounge chair and ottoman, which has the leather with the wood base. It's kind of, if you're successful, that's the chair. Frasier had one.

Jeffrey Brown: Frasier on television.

Andrew Blauvelt: Yeah.


Unidentified Female: That happened to be so easy for you.

Unidentified Male: Easy? This is killing me. You want me to pick you up right now and carry over that Eames class and I can show you why it's the best-engineered chair in the world?

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, most of us have seen or used stackable chairs -- office and other furniture designed by Cranbrook luminaries such as Charles and Ray Eames -- like the one I used for my sit-down. Or, Florence Knoll, who with her husband would found the Knoll Furniture Company.

Cranbrook's first president, Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, also designed the exterior and grounds. His even-more-famous son, Eero Saarinen, designed the tulip chair, and such renowned modernist buildings as Washington's Dulles Airport -- a model sits in the Cranbrook museum's vault.

You remember when this was just an idea?

Nina Cho: Yes, it was when it was like a small paper model.

Jeffrey Brown: The hands-on ethos here has been taken up by young students and graduates, like Nina Cho, who was raised in South Korea. Her design for this chair began with a piece of paper.

Nina Cho: And I start playing with the paper, like folding it, like bending it or cutting the paper. And then I just found this really interesting, like how this two-dimensional material paper, just by simply folding it, bending, it becomes three dimensional objects. I didn't think that will be a chair.

Jeffrey Brown: And so when did it become a chair?

Nina Cho: Once I connected those edges.


Jeffrey Brown: Today, Cho is an independent designer based in Detroit, working in both mass production and one-off collectibles, including chairs.

Nina Cho: What I like about chairs is it's so iconic, you know? But what I don't like about it is, everyone has to sit on it. It has to be very sturdy, but it has to be beautiful at the same time. It has to be unique. So, there is a lot to consider when you're designing chairs.

Jeffrey Brown: That's for sure. Cho's former teacher, Scott Klinker, had fun showing us the many movable parts and creative ways his chairs can be used. But he well-remembered his introduction when he was a student here.

Scott Klinker: On the first day as a graduate student, my teacher asked me, what do you want to design? And I said, oh, I want to design a chair. And he said, well, what do you want a chair to be about?

Jeffrey Brown: What do you want a chair to be about?

Scott Klinker: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Interesting question.

Scott Klinker: And at the time, it had never occurred to me that every chair is about something. And so I think that question has stuck with me over time.

Jeffrey Brown: Today, design is everywhere in our lives. And now, says Klinker, there's something else, call it a COVID side-effect.

Scott Klinker: COVID has made everyone so spatially sensitive, but then with the conditions of remote work, the way that people are thinking about their homes, and the furniture that they might need for their homes, or the way that they're using their spaces in their homes, you know, all that might be changing pretty radically as we move forward.

Jeffrey Brown: And that's for today's designers to work on. In the meantime, go ahead -- pull up a chair.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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