Not Your Grandma's Davenport

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When most people hear the words "furniture and museum" in the same breath, they probably think of antique rockers or Early American cabinets that came out of someone's attic. That mindset presents some challenges when an institution takes on the task of creating and drawing a crowd to a furniture exhibition. When the exhibition focuses on works designed and produced by studio fine art furniture makers here in Indiana, the challenge could be especially daunting.

"Fluxus" by Dustin Headley - COURTESY OF INDIANA STATE MUSEUM
  • Courtesy of Indiana State Museum
  • "Fluxus" by Dustin Headley

In its upcoming NiSource Gallery exhibition, the Indiana State Museum takes on this challenge with "Fearless Furniture." Curated and organized by Decorative Arts Curator David Buchanan, along with Collections Manager Meredith McGovern and myself, the exhibit opens on Oct. 5. We've organized the pieces to provide an in-depth look at contemporary and traditional furniture designs, including works by many of the top artisans working today. Internationally recognized furniture designer Wendy Murayama juried the exhibition, selecting 21 artists who will join three guest artists - all with connections to Indiana.

If you think a furniture exhibition would be something of a snore, be prepared to check your preconceived notions at the door. This show packs a punch. Without sacrificing tradition, innovation or quality, Murayama gives something to everyone here. Old-school, traditional woodworking techniques are represented in pieces by Randall O'Donnell and Nancy Hiller. A very different approach can be seen in the Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) technology designs by Tim Fuller and Dustin Headley. You'll find high tech, low tech, wood, metal, found objects, hand-painted and automotive high polish finishes. While some of the work looks more like it belongs on pedestals at the IMA than in a home, everything in the show is a functional piece of furniture.

Star Chair by Glen Fuller - COURTESY OF INDIANA STATE MUSEUM
  • Courtesy of Indiana State Museum
  • Star Chair by Glen Fuller

At the heart of the show is the passion and commitment of these artists to their art form - hence the title "Fearless Furniture." Like any profession, in the art world, a small group of practitioners operate a bit under the radar. Fine art furniture makers are just such a breed.Spend a few minutes with these folks (I did; we videotaped several for a segment that will play during the run of the show), and you'll quickly catch on. In a world where most furniture is mass-produced, these artists are bucking the trend and creating truly exceptional one-of-a kind furniture pieces. They approach each piece as a problem to be solved, using the three most important tools in their tool boxes - their eyes, hands and brain - to get the job done.

When these artists are pressed to talk about their work, the conversation easily shifts from materials and techniques to what drives them to create. There's no mention of skimping on materials or watching the clock. They have a mindset of getting into a creative zone and pushing the boundaries until they exceed their own expectations. Retired Herron Furniture Professor, Phil Tennant, likened it to, "a dog chasing his tail; what I'm after is just beyond my grasp. The perfect form I crave is just beyond my reach." Phil's thoughts are not the exception; they're pretty much the universal attitude of the exhibition. Nashville, Indiana artist, Randy O'Donnell's, Grandfather Clock, is very traditional in appearance, but the artist is quite clear that he is a contemporary craftsman who chooses to use traditional designs and techniques to make his work. The work is his, not a historic reproduction. From the feedback I'm getting about the show, there's quite a bit of enthusiasm for the exhibition and Maruyama's talk. If you have an interest in furniture design, fine art, quality craftsmanship or just beautiful objects, then mark your calendars - this is an event you won't want to miss. 

"Fearless Furniture" opens at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites on Oct. 5, 2013, and continues through May 25, 2014. Wendy Maruyama will present a lecture at the Museum on Friday, Oct. 11 at 4 p.m. A reception celebrating the opening of the exhibition will follow the lecture. Both events are free and open to the public, but seating is limited for the talk and reception, so an RSVP is required. To reserve seats, call the museum at 317-232-1633.

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