Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650-1830 is an exciting new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery surveying cabinets, chairs, tables, clocks and more from the early days of that wonderful state. It’s the first comprehensive look at its subject in half a century, so seeing the exhibit is a little like seeing Halley’s comet. Art and Industry runs until January 8 of next year, allowing plenty of time for interested students to check it out.
Today, Rhode Island is famous for having the smallest area of all the states. But during the Revolutionary period, it might have been better known as an exciting source of new cabinets. To achieve such a distinction, however, took some time, a fact reflected in the exhibition. The show is organized more or less chronologically, so that the breathtaking development of a distinct Rhode Island style becomes apparent.
The first room contains chairs and cabinets from the 17th and early 18th century. I do not claim to be any kind of furniture expert, but if it weren’t for the labels, I would have guessed that the 17th century chairs were from the Vikings or medieval Europe. They tended to be quite geometric and blocky, but also rather heavily decorated. The arms of the Carver Chair from Newport, from this section, are made up of a line of wooden spheres, almost like a string of beads. It’s surprising, but not all that functional — and, in general, the 17th century pieces are interesting but not necessarily inviting.
The second half of the room, featuring pieces from the early 18th century, already showcases a major development. Much of the clumsy geometry is gone, and the thin legs of some of the cabinets give them an elegant floating feel. One of the cabinets has 22 compartments and drawers, along with 25 secret compartments. Astonishing tidbits like this, which can be found all around this exhibit, demonstrate the gulf between early America and today. How many cabinets does your dorm room desk have? Art and Industry provides a glimpse that stokes our imagination about how people lived back then.
After this time period, the furniture of Rhode Island, and of the exhibit, takes off. The first truly impressive piece is the massive desk and bookcase owned by Mary and Nathan Carpenter, which feels both elegant and monumental. As the exhibit continues, all hints of blockiness are purged as the distinction between design and ornamentation blurs. The pieces sometimes even seem to foreshadow the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century. Chair backs smoothly turn and form vine-like patterns. Legs are nature-evoking curves ending in either slipper feet or ball-and-claw designs. A long line of cabinets by Edmund Townsend take inspiration from the sea, not only in its prominent shell designs, but also in the attenuated curves and outlines, which evoke coral. These Rhode Island furniture makers establish their own style, one that feels recognizably American.
But wait: The clumsy geometry of the early chairs appears again in the exhibit’s chronology — in chairs created by chairmakers during the Revolutionary period. The more beautiful chairs that appear earlier in the exhibit, made for the wealthy, were actually constructed by cabinetmakers. It’s a subtle reminder that the furniture craft, the aesthetic progression, is tightly intertwined with economic conditions. The Rhode Island furniture industry peaked around Revolutionary War era, then declined as the handcraft tradition began to die out.
The final room introduces new ideas that the exhibition doesn’t quite flesh out. The wonderful Windsor chairs open outward and evoke woven baskets. Across the room stand semicircular tables with thin, pointy legs. Their design is surprising: They seem almost futuristic, but, obviously, it’s impossible for these craftsmen to have found their inspiration in any science fiction.
What better way to welcome yourself back to Yale than to treat yourself to a furniture exhibition? I, for one, cannot think of anything else. Bring your friends and admire true craftsmanship. Then cry when you return to the best piece of furniture in your suite, your Yogibo beanbag chair.