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Michener Museum gives furniture fanciers two new reasons for a Bucks County day trip

Now at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown: A big retrospective of American chairs and a small, sublime Nakashima exhibition.

Mira Nakashima's "Tsuitate Sofa," (2015/18), at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.
Mira Nakashima's "Tsuitate Sofa," (2015/18), at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.Read moreGeorge Nakashima Woodworkers

A music stand and a chair face one another in “Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture at the Michener,” one of two current exhibitions on furniture at the Michener Art Museum.

George Nakashima designed the stand, and the shelf that holds the music has a free edge — the ragged, natural look that expresses Nakashima’s reverence for the life of the trees from which his furniture was made. The chair was designed by his daughter, Mira, for a chamber music group that wanted to make a visual statement on stage in chairs that offered maximum flexibility.

The two pieces were not meant to go together. In the Michener show, though, they seem to be in dialogue. The music stand is vertical and imposing, the chair is open and receptive.

Mira began working in her father’s workshop in 1970 and has continued to produce variations of his designs, along with her own, since his death in 1990. This chair is one of her designs that is least like her father’s. It is more geometric and less mysterious, yet if you look closely, many of the same principles of craftsmanship are at work.

I can’t help seeing the stand as an embodiment of Nakashima’s thinking, and the chair as the work of a confident disciple who takes the teachings of the master and makes them her own.

It stands at the heart of a small but excellent show that brings together works from the Michener’s collection with some borrowed pieces that document the circle of people who made Eastern Pennsylvania a center for ideas about furniture.

The show opens with a wonderful photograph showing an eye and part of the face of George Nakashima looking through a hole in a piece of wood. The one who is really doing the looking in this exhibition, though, is Mira Nakashima, the guest curator who chose and arranged the works.

Understandably, she sees her father as the central figure in the creation of a regional design culture while acknowledging that others, such as Wharton Esherick, were active before her father’s arrival. Her vision also encompasses Harry Bertoia and Paul Evans, whose work in metal is outside the wood-worshipping Nakashima tradition.

The furniture manufacturers and designers Hans and Florence Knoll are not in the show, though many of the pieces shown here are by makers who worked for their Montgomery County firm at one time or another.

Mira Nakashima includes a modest side chair designed by Noemi Raymond, an artist and designer married to the architect Antonin Raymond who had a flourishing career in Japan before World War II.

The Raymonds moved to an extraordinary house near New Hope that looks Quaker from the front and Zen from the rear. When the war began, George Nakashima, who was born in Seattle, was sent with his family to an internment camp for people of Japanese descent in the desert in Idaho. The Raymonds heard about that and offered him a job on their farm. That brought the Nakashimas to New Hope and arguably got the tradition under way.

The climax of the show, though, is the Tsuitate Sofa by Mira Nakashima, designed in 2015 and made last year. It literally upends the live edge that was her father’s trademark by placing a spectacularly ragged piece of maple burl vertically to serve as the sofa’s back.

The natural wood here looks aggressive, like a burst of flame, and it marks this sofa as a seat of power. This recent design affirms that the Nakashima tradition is still alive and capable of surprise.

Our chairs, ourselves

Though the works in “Nakashima Looks” are handcrafted and soulful, “The Art of Seating: Two Hundred Years of American Design,” a much larger show, attempts to document American culture through a survey of outstanding chairs. The show, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, runs through May 5.

The exhibition, which has been traveling to museums around the country for most of the decade, begins at the moment that chairs were transformed from expensive, handcrafted objects to abundant manufactured goods.

By taking an example of each major style and technical and material innovation, it quite literally documents American attitudes — straight-backed, slouching, authoritarian, informal — throughout our history. It demonstrates that Americans have always loved a gadget, and we have long led the world in seating that adjusts, rocks, or turns into something else.

Manufacturing made it possible for those who weren’t rich to have abundantly furnished homes, though this parade of chairs has a bias toward the outrageous and ostentatious.

For example, the two slipper chairs designed and manufactured by John Henry Belter have backs that are intricately constructed ornaments. They were luxury goods, but they could have been produced only in a factory.

Sometimes the backstory is more memorable than the items on display. I love the one about Cyrus Wakefield, a young grocer who in the early 1850s noticed rattan that had been used to secure cargo from Asia discarded on the Boston wharves. That insight gave rise to the rattan furniture industry, which could be the basis of a whole exhibition in itself.

The exhibition includes many of the usual suspects — the Eames plywood lounge, a Shaker rocker, Bertoia’s Diamond, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ill-considered Johnson’s Wax desk chair.

In some cases, the historical span reveals relationships. It is valuable to look again at the seemingly ubiquitous 1944 aluminum Navy chair by Emeco, the one designed to survive torpedoes. Not far away is an ultra-light aluminum chair designed by the architect Frank Gehry — also made by Emeco.

Chairs are, of course, symbols of authority. For me, perhaps the most thought-provoking one here is a rather self-important thronelike chair made in Philadelphia in 1857. It was designed by Thomas U. Walter as part of a project in which the architect doubled the size of the U.S. Capitol and added its familiar cast-iron dome.

The chair, made for members of the House of Representatives, is festooned with national imagery and stands stolid and seemingly permanent. The chairs were put into use even as Congress was falling into disarray and tensions between North and South were tearing the country apart.

Nobody expects a chair to stop the Civil War. But this confident, upright chair, made as the country was falling apart, is poignant for having tried.


Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture at the Michener, through July 7.

The Art of Seating: Two Hundred Years of American Design, through May 5.

Both at the Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, $8-$15 ($5 ages 6-18, free for children under 6), 215-340-9800,