110 chairs, 170 years, 83 designers and makers, 14 of them unknown.
The premise of this exhibition is simple. One object type – the chair – explored from the earliest documented period of local production through to today.
This is not the definitive history of chair design and making in Aotearoa. Instead, it is a story of ad hoc research and discovery that begins and ends with an evocative whalebone chair that resides today in Auckland Museum. Found in Russell in 1944, the chair dates to the 1800s. It was a product of necessity: made from a whale vertebra, with three bones inserted for legs, by a whaler needing something to sit on.
The exhibition charts a jagged course from those corporeal whale bones. One chair leads to another, each chosen because they point us to stories that warrant telling and, in many cases, risked going untold.
Key moments come and go – the Arts and Crafts period of the late 1800s; modernism; the local Studio Furniture movement in the 1980s and 90s – while particular themes persist. Pragmatism can be seen in the design of chairs in Aotearoa at every turn; so too can the impact of access (or lack of it) to local manufacturing, materials and global trade.
Adaptation is an unwavering thread throughout The Chair. An object has ancestry, nothing is entirely new, nothing is its own island. By moving through the chairs in this exhibition we find connections and inspiration between the works; we see the lines they throw to the past, and to design and craft beyond our shores. Adaptation can throw up tensions. While it shares territory with copying and appropriation, it also offers a path to iterative change and innovation. It is how a design culture emerges over time: how we find a unique voice.
The 1800s whalebone chair is not in this exhibition – it is too fragile to be loaned. Instead, a one-to-one replica is in its place. Made with the benefit of contemporary three-dimensional printing technologies, the 2023 model is both one of the oldest and newest chairs on display.
The Chair is made possible by the generous support of more than 50 private lenders, and institutional loans from Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and The Dowse Art Museum.
Exhibition identity and spacial design by Inhouse.