Thinking Seriously About Furniture

| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:30

    in 1926, bauhaus artist marcel breuer designed what would become one of the world's most popular chairs. the breuer chair, made from a single tube of lightweight steel, became a classic of modernist design. but gord peteran, a canadian artist, believes that few people truly appreciate the chair's graceful efficiency.

    after finding a breuer frame in a dumpster, peteran wondered: how could he reinvigorate the chair? how could he "say again" what breuer had said decades earlier? his solution was ingenious: he wired the chair with an electric cord, so that it sprouted a plug at one end, and a working light bulb at the other. the flowing metallic line became a single electric current; the shining bulb heralded breuer's moment of inspiration. an early table, 2004, which peteran made when he tried to take a seaside vacation. courtesy of william anderson. photo by elaine brodie for almost 30 years, peteran has fashioned such peculiar objects, which weld sculpture, craft and conceptual art. "furniture meets its maker," a solo retrospective now on view at the museum of art and design, is a welcome introduction to peteran's fusion of strangeness and accessibility, mystery and logic, playfulness and rigor.

    in a photograph that spans one gallery wall, peteran looks like an untamed romantic, with long, stringy hair and a baleful expression. in person, however, he is wide-eyed and obliging. his clothes are neat, and his hair is now cropped short. he explains his works with great patience, and seems genuinely eager to be understood.

    his goal, he says, is to instruct; he wants people to pay attention to their surroundings. most of us don't think seriously about furniture, precisely because it's built to make us comfortable.

    "familiarity," peteran says, "can be a blinding element."

    peteran, for his part, has trouble thinking about much else besides art and design. his is an avid draftsman, and in his spare time he paints. he claims not to read or listen to music, and admits that he's "not very good at going on holiday."

    a few years ago, when he tried to take a seaside vacation, he found himself binding sticks together with twine. before long, he'd constructed "early table," a clever riff on the classical "d"-shaped pedestal. the piece is a kind of carpenter's joke, but it also feels strangely alive. stray branches shoot off at odd angles and uncut strings dangling eerily, like flagella or strands of cobweb.

    although few of his objects are so explicitly organic, peteran does avoid synthetic materials, preferring "noble" substances like walnut and bronze. as a result, many of the pieces resemble uncanny artifacts from an alternative victorian age. "prosthetic" evokes antiquated medical equipment; "maypole," commissioned for an exhibit of "naughty furniture," is a love swing, steampunk style (a sub-genre of victorian-style science fiction), with two inscrutable metal harnesses.

    peteran's inventiveness-along with the impressive craftsmanship of many of his designs-has won him loyal patrons. although he has accepted numerous public commissions, peteran likes designing objects for the homes of longtime clients. in his view, it is every sculptor's dream to see his work in a master bedroom.

    but that doesn't mean he wants clients to use his furniture. when asked whether he wanted people to sit on his chairs or eat at his tables, he winced, "i'd rather they didn't."

    -- gord peteran: furniture meets its maker museum of art and design 2 columbus circle through july 26