I showed up late for the tour. It was two Septembers ago, on my first visit to the Yale University Art Gallery’s Furniture Study. The tour guide had already led the other visitors through a few rows of chairs. A friend and I had gotten a little lost, having first arrived at the YUAG only to be told that the study is actually in a different building on campus.
As it turns out, the location of the study isn’t even listed on the Gallery’s website. To get there, you have to make an appointment first. Or, you can arrive for the public tour held every Friday at 12:30 p.m., like I (almost) did.
I can’t remember a lot of what the guide said, but I do remember a couple things: first, that chests of drawers can evolve over the years, newer iterations featuring more compartments than their older counterparts. And second, that the neatly arranged rows — of tables, chairs, mirrors and cupboards — gleamed quietly. When I moved through them, I could see marks of use — scratches, nicks, the glow of being worn.
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Part of the YUAG’s American Decorative Arts department, the Furniture Study has been around since the 1930s, when Francis P. Garvan, who graduated from Yale in 1897, donated what museum assistant Eric Litke calls an “enormous” gift to the Gallery.
“He was a little bit ahead of his time in his vision of what he wanted his gift to be,” Litke says.
Besides having key objects on view in the YUAG proper, Garvan wanted to have as much of the remaining donation to be stored in a visible and accessible way. The donation totaled 10,000 objects, including everything from silver to furniture to ceramics and glass. Thus the Furniture Study was born: an encyclopedia of American furniture, from 1650 to 1830.
Since then, the American Decorative Arts department has filled in the gaps, acquiring objects from the 19th and 20th century. The study now also features contemporary woodturning and wood art, Litke said.
At the time of its creation, Litke tells me, Garvan anticipated that his donation would allow young Yale men to receive a genteel education in the decorative arts. Now, the study functions in a variety of ways. Professors hold classes and sections in the study, where students think about the domestic settings of the furniture or how it was made or even what kind of tree a certain chair came from. Scholars from other institutions drop by as well, and furniture appraisal classes use the study’s collection to train appraisers, Litke says — one man taking a course at Sotheby’s even measured all the chairs for his thesis on the ergonomics of colonial seating.
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As professor Ned Cooke spoke with me in the study, we walked through the aisles, with Cooke opening cabinets and assembling chairs. Cooke teaches courses on American decorative arts and material culture, including one introductory course which I took with him last spring. He compares the Furniture Study to open stacks libraries, as opposed to an Orbis search: there are aisles for you to browse through, and you might discover something you weren’t expecting.
The aisles are organized by type of furniture, such as sideboards, desks, cabinets and tables. As visitors walk along an aisle, they can perceive how a form changes over the centuries. Walking me through the aisles, Cooke points out a chest from the 17th century. He calls it a “lump of storage space,” and it is practically just a box with a lid. Further down the row, the chests become more complicated. More drawers appear, and then compartments within the drawers appear. Whoever owned the later chests could put specific items in specific boxes, instead of digging around that one big chest.
Unlike the storage facilities on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Furniture Study’s objects aren’t behind sheets of plexiglass. This accessibility encourages visitors to interact with the objects at a closer level, the reason being that thinking about these objects isn’t the same as thinking about a painting; you have to use senses other than sight, Cooke says. The students in his freshman seminar, “Furniture and American Life,” learn to handle the objects by hand.
“So much of these objects is tied into our bodily relationship to them,” Cooke said. “What do the drawers feel like when you open them? What are the secret compartments? What is the smell like?”
Many students in Cooke’s introductory decorative arts class, like Sarah Gomez ’18, first discovered the study through Cooke. Gomez has since revisited the study because the pieces there “tell both individual stories and stories of larger historical trends in decorative art,” she said. Her classmate, Derek Lo ’17, also found himself drawn to the intricate craftsmanship of the objects in the rows.
Personal experience with this kind of craftsmanship, Litke says, is increasingly uncommon in our postmodern material culture. What the study aims to do is prompt visitors to think about the way things in our everyday lives are made, and to consider what human handcraft is capable of.
“Getting people to think about how things are made, and stimulating interest in American history: basically those are the flip sides of the coin of what our mission is,” Litke said.
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Tucked away in the back of the study are what Litke calls “the bones of a working furniture shop”: remnants from the 1960s and 1970s, when the study used to have a staff member on hand for furniture repairs. Now, the Furniture Study hires outside conservators, but the shop still remains, featuring a workbench that formerly belonged to Garvan’s cabinet repairman in the 1920s.
The study currently invites craftsmen into the workshop for public demonstrations on historical woodworking techniques.
Earlier this month, conservator Joshua Klein brought his foot-powered lathe — a machine which rotates wood on an axis to manipulate it in a variety of ways — down to the study, demonstrating colonial wood turning to a packed room of 25 people, including the general public and Yale faculty. He first compared two 18th-century chairs, one made by a turner and the other by a carpenter. After noting the differences in the techniques and outputs of each, Klein showed visitors and Gallery staff the setup of the lathe and how it worked.
Klein says that among “period furniture geeks,” the study is a widely known, well-cherished resource. By observing objects in the study, visitors begin to see the value system of their makers. These economy-minded craftsmen might have made an opulent, expensive chest of drawers, but have left the inside or backside unfinished to save time and effort, Klein says. As a conservator, Klein has come across countless pieces of historical furniture, but he says that for someone unacquainted with the particulars of period furniture, the discovery that such luxury objects contain surprises within can be eye-opening.
The collection is not just comprised of high-end commissions, however.
“Not everything is the furniture of the 1 percent,” Klein said. “This is actually a pretty good cross-section of the kind of furniture that was available — everything from elaborate ornamentation to relatively common objects.”
As a visitor to the Furniture Study himself, Klein says that it derives its allure not just from the unique collection and accommodating policies. The staff is also warm and welcoming so that “you don’t feel like you’re bothering anybody,” he added.
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Three hundred and fifty people went on a Friday tour or attended a demonstration at the study in 2014, Litke said — a 100-person increase from the previous year.
John Lee ’18 was one of them. Lee, who had just begun learning the craft of woodworking at the time, found himself paying attention to the relationship between the craftsman that made an object, the viewer of that object and the material used for the object.
“It is very special to think that all these physical objects were used at specific time,” Lee said.
Cooke says that with accumulated use, an object will acquire a patina, a sheen that is produced from use. Over the years, the arm of a chair or the side of a desk will be worn by sunlight, by oil from the palms of your hands, by scratches and by people trying to rub the scratches out.
“There’s a sense that it’s been loved,” Cooke said.
Over a year after that first visit to the Study, I think differently of the scratches crosshatched across the wooden floor of my room — these signs of use aren’t scars, just mere marks of my presence.