Funky furnishings

A couch made of hay, wacky benches, and more invade the city for the Furniture Society conference

There will be tables, bureaus, and cabinets on display at galleries in the area, but seats and benches (such as the couch made of hay) will be the focus of a display at MIT. There will be tables, bureaus, and cabinets on display at galleries in the area, but seats and benches (such as the couch made of hay) will be the focus of a display at MIT. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2010

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The doggie-bone shaped park bench and multicolored, Tetris-like throne arrived Monday, plopped on a lawn outside MIT’s student center, daring passersby to give them a whirl.

Wooden cabinets gift-wrapped in playful designs of water lilies, chrysanthemums, snowflakes, and waterfalls have taken over Gallery NAGA on Newbury Street. And at Cambridge’s Mobilia Gallery, a goofy, two-seat rocking chair merits a double take — as well as seesaw-like teamwork to get it to rock.

“People come to a chair with a certain level of comfort and expectation,’’ said the double-rocker’s creator, Cambridge native Tom Loeser. “I feel that you can play with that and maybe in some cases subvert it and sort of surprise people with ideas about how a chair might also function. A part of furniture-making for me is making it sort of fun.’’

Hundreds of handmade furniture makers are descending on Boston this week for a giant conference at MIT where everything from green workshop techniques to 19th-century styles to laser beams will be fodder for discussion. And they have their tables, benches, seats, bureaus, armoires, and rockers in tow: more than 150 pieces can be seen starting today at public exhibits in Boston, Cambridge, and Brockton’s Fuller Craft Museum.

New England has been synonymous with handmade furniture since Colonial days. Boston University’s long defunct but hardly forgotten “Program in Artistry’’ churned out a wave of furniture makers in the 1970s and 1980s who now rank among the nation’s best. The acclaimed North Bennet Street School, UMass-Dartmouth’s furniture-design program (descended from BU’s program), Beverly’s Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, and Rhode Island School of Design are busy training the furniture makers of tomorrow.

But the Furniture Society, a national trade association for furniture makers, has never before brought its big annual meeting to Boston.

“There’s no better place than here to take a look at what’s going on today with furniture, both in its relationship with historical roots and where it’s going in the future,’’ said conference organizer Gail Fredell. “It’s going to be a really good overview of the state of the art of fine-furniture making.’’

With various exhibits, a benefit auction, and the public installations on MIT’s lawn, more handcrafted works will be concurrently on display than ever before. Much of the furniture comes from local artists and furniture-school graduates who work not only with wood, but with stone, metal, ceramics, carbon fibers, and recycled materials. A 20-piece exhibit at MIT’s Compton Gallery, titled “Six Degrees of Separation,’’ is devoted exclusively to craftsmen from New England’s six states.

While a number of works are traditional in nature, this year’s conference, subtitled “Fusions: Minds & Hands Shaping Our Future,’’ seems to be overflowing with creative and mind-bending stuff.

The dog bone chairs, Tetris throne (its official title is “Colour Blocks’’), and other inventive public furniture, including a 10-foot-tall observation chair and a park bench dubbed the “Intellectuals Circle,’’ will inhabit MIT’s Kresge Lawn through the end of July. Sitting is welcome.

“I want to get people out of the little rut that they’re in with public seating,’’ says exhibit curator Mitch Ryerson, a dean among local furniture makers who concentrates on outdoor furniture as art. “The buzzword everyone uses now is ‘place making.’ You want places in a city that are not just generic. When you say, ‘I’ll meet you at the blue bench,’ everyone knows what you mean.’’

Somerville’s Vivian Beer will be among several artisans featured at Mobilia on Huron Avenue, a regular showplace for cutting-edge furniture. Her specialty? Furniture that elicits emotion.

“At Winslow Park in Maine, we set up a long bench that on one end unravels into a silhouette of a cloud bank,’’ she says. “The bench is way too high for a park bench, so when you get on it, your toes might not touch the ground. When you’re sitting on it you feel like you’re floating just a little bit.’’

Fall River artist Jenna Goldberg, who teaches industrial design at RISD, treats cabinet drawers and doors as art canvases.

“A lot of [my] shapes and the images are sort of borrowed from Japanese textiles and kimonos. I take elements and mash them together to create new imagery,’’ Goldberg says about her ornate, carved, and painted Gallery NAGA pieces. “I come from a background of illustration. My mother was a textile designer. It just comes to me naturally.’’

Furniture — or is it modern art? — built with digital video and audio materials can be found at the Fuller Craft Museum (admission fee required), while MIT’s first “MadFab’’ student-furniture contest winner, a crazy, wavy, 36-legged bench by senior-to-be Frederick Kim, is a must-see at the student center.

Though conference lectures are primarily for professionals, a handful are open to the public for a small admission fee, including today’s opening address by amateur woodworker Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s “Car Talk.’’

And if you love something you see, you can probably own it, as the majority of furniture on display this week is for sale, including more than 50 pieces at Friday night’s auction.

“People go, ‘Oh, handmade furniture. I can never afford that,’ ’’ says Beth Ann Gerstein, executive director of the Society of Arts and Crafts on Newbury Street, yet another exhibit venue. “But in some cases the handmade work is in the same ballpark as if they went to any of the upper-scale, nice furniture stores in the area.’’

The only question is, does the double rocking chair go in front of the TV, or on the porch?

For more information on the conference and exhibits, go to and venue websites. Peter DeMarco can be reached at

Pieces from the Furniture Society conference

Pieces from the Furniture Society conference

See some of the pieces displayed around town.