If you've ever been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you know that furniture was our first art, the one in which North American makers produced work that competed in craft and originality with any in the world. David Ebner, born in 1945, places himself in this tradition when he speaks of the 1,300 or so pieces he has made in his career as "antiques of the future."
Not Ikea, in other words.
The 60 works in "David N. Ebner: 50 Years of Studio Furniture," at Moderne Gallery through Aug. 31, span his entire career, from student days until now.
This is not a full-fledged retrospective - there are prices on the labels - but it is the largest show ever of his work. Along with a new book, David N. Ebner: Studio Furniture by Nancy N. Schiffer, it makes a strong case for the Long Island-based woodworker.
I confess that I have always resisted the idea of studio furniture, which often seems to turn its back both on practicality and on the modernist ideal of using design on a large scale to bring a freer, more beautiful life to all.
Ebner was of the first generation of artistic furniture makers to learn their craft in college, rather than through apprenticeship or self-invention. This segment of the '60s generation was, the book asserts, disgusted with the products of mass culture and dedicated to the handmade and the well-made. These artist-craftsmen reverted to doing what fine-furniture makers historically have done - making a handful of luxurious objects for the very rich.
Obviously, handcrafted furniture can have aesthetic, emotional, and even moral power. New Hope-based George Nakashima, often seen as an inspiration for the studio furniture movement, made tables that speak of mortality, decay, life's precariousness, unpredictability, power, and beauty. They are not simply an ornament in one's home; they are a presence.
Studio furniture is obviously a luxury good. My problem with it is that it often looks too precious; it's a display of rich and rare materials and bravura craftsmanship that pleases the eye and tingles the fingertips, but doesn't express anything beyond its expense.
Ebner often comes close to falling into this trap. He loves exotic, highly figured woods, and he produces objects with a certain swank, a jewel-box-like cigar humidor, for example. His saving grace is that everything he does has structure as well as surface. One of his inspirations is the sternum - breastbone - of a duck. He uses that strong double-curving form to support tables, rocking chairs, and a music stand. In one of his most successful designs, the Brookhaven desk chair, he uses a similarly strong, graceful curve, but made its legs fork out like tree branches, which provide solid support for the seat.
Structure is important for furniture because it sparks empathy; we know in our bodies the challenges of standing up and keeping our balance. Joints, too, are crucial, both for practical and aesthetic reasons. Some pieces, such as a one-legged table meant to sit in a corner, get their character entirely from the way in which Ebner takes a complicated connection and makes all the materials and shapes flow into it, as if in a waterfall.
Two very early pieces in the show have a particularly intimate connection to Ebner. He made them in the mid-'60s as a student at the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where the influential Wendell Castle was his teacher. They have been in his home ever since. One is a comfortable-looking easy chair with laminated, blocklike arms. Another is a liquor cabinet of interlocking box forms.
Immediately after these two pieces came what was to be one of Ebner's signature works: a chest of drawers that has broken out of its rectangular case and stretches its arms in what its maker says is an abstracted tree (though it made me feel as if I was about to be hugged by a six-legged bear).
It's a chest with a backbone. Seen another way, it looks like a piece of calligraphy, and indeed it evokes the Chinese character wang, which means king. (The one in the show, which comes from Ebner's home, was made in 2006 after he sold the original 1966 chest. Its lines are slightly different from the original.)
The easy chair and the liquor cabinet are understandable as student works that experiment with ideas he would not pursue. With the chest, his work shifts from design to sculpture, and thus presages the shape and values of an entire career. It is a clear expression of structure, composed with curves instead of straight lines.
It is inspired by living things, as it shows off and honors the wood from which it is made. It is almost impossible to guess the year from which it dates.
Twenty years later, in the mid-1980s, Ebner gave this hulking masculine piece a sister, a lingerie chest whose slender unified form and open arms evokes a kimono.
Ebner's "twisted stick" pieces, constructed from sassafras twigs deformed by honeysuckle that he gathers near his home, force him toward work that, while thoughtful, is not so obviously refined. Perhaps the most engaging of these are what Ebner calls "book chairs." They are too low for adults to sit on, but they are to be set next to a chair, piled high with books. And they demonstrate that furniture forms can take on unexpected functions.
But the piece I love, the one I want to bring home, is a 69-inch coatrack made from painted ash in the shape of a scallion. It has the beautiful branching of his best wood pieces, along with a sense of humor. Whatever you do, though, don't hang your dripping trench coat on it. Can't you see that it's art?
David N. Ebner:
50 Years of Studio Furniture
Where: Through Aug. 31 at Moderne Gallery, 111 N. Third St.
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m., seven days a week.
Information: 215-923-8536 or www.modernegallery.com