The Bridgeport Art Center had to hire special gallery attendants for a recent show – those who don’t freak out when the public touches the art, or sits on it. The First Distinctive Furniture Show is a collection of art furniture – rocking chairs, benches, dressers or tables – handcrafted by twenty Chicago artisans and designers. Formerly the Spiegel Catalog Warehouse, the art center’s resurrection as a kingpin in the Bridgeport arts scene continues to cultivate creative growth, in a historically industry neighborhood. Taken together, the building and the show exhibit a perfect relationship between past and present craftsmanship.
Over the last decade, owner Paul Levy, has been transforming the 100-year-old warehouse into artists’ studios, events spaces and art galleries. I’m grateful he saw its potential because the result, years later, is the first exhibition of work by members of the Chicago Furniture Designers Association (CFDA). Since 1995, the CFDA has been a networking community among local furniture makers. They share a common understanding in their designs: the public has power, because ultimately, the public buys.
The 4-E Gallery, more informally called the Fourth Floor Gallery is adequately named. A freight elevator – capable of jam-packing four smart cars – has signs pointing the fourth floor, east wing button to avoid the public getting lost in the half-million-square-foot warehouse. When the elevator doors glide open, it’s a VIP moment of arriving at the pent house suite. Five paces ahead is the gallery entrance.
Natural timber beams stretch from original wood plank floors to lofted ceilings, surviving not only as the support system but also as a visual nod to the building’s earliest artisan work. The space was more than desirable for the First Distinctive Furniture Show.
On closing night, Hal Link, the curator and CFDA woodworker, lingered near the entrance as the friendly giant greeter. He is a beast of a man with a wavering, jovial waddle – with pelvis leading shoulder – it arouses the flaps of his leather kilt to swing side to side. With a welcoming hand extended, he never once mentions his own work in the show, only where to find food and drink.
The 3,000-square-foot-gallery conveys an overwhelming focus on woodworking. While simple beauty and functionality are central themes, the use of multiple mediums together – metal, stone, or fabric – is lacking. The artistry of each piece, however, is present, bountiful and should be celebrated.
One furniture designer commanding attention is Pradeep Shimpi, distinguishable by his works’ minimal curves and mid-century influences. His painted yellow nightstand bows out from the bottom-up, as do the legs on his dark maple reception table. Every drawer has brushed cast-aluminum handles, never straying from the decade-old design origins of his company, Shiani Furniture. In the late 90s, the Chicago Sun Times Homelife considered Shimpi an “art furniture” designer. Within that same vein, he is a furniture designer, but won’t settle for the traditional approach of just making something functional. It needs flair.
Pete Lambert shines best by engaging the public. Lambert’s maple and walnut rocking chairs are angled back for comfort instead of the traditional straight, stiff chairs. By the unique angle, they appear as a one-person sleigh, in hyper-speed, flying down a racetrack. Upon my own testing, I decided Lambert should have been the original rocking chair creator. They fit the curvature of my spine and I indulged in doing minimal work to rock.
On the contrary to Lambert’s thoughtful comfort, William FitzPatrick created the Chaise Lounge. Grounded in the Bauhaus school approach, it promotes the philosophy of simple design void of decoration. Unlike the other designers, he leaves the jagged S-shape recliner unfinished in surface treatment. Although it’s usable, it takes on a sculptural quality. He uses salvaged wood to emphasize the DIY quality, while provoking his own originality.
Throughout gallery, the show proves its main element is still nestled in utility. The concepts behind contemporary or avant-garde design constitute as mere boundaries for the First Distinctive Furniture Show. Rich in Chicago pride, its obvious the CFDA will show furniture as long as they have an audience. High-quality craftsmanship is intoxicating for many, as is the majestic allure of using reclaimed wood. Some may dismiss art furniture as being paltry, but the designers know that fabricating something unique and handcrafted, is never up for negotiation.
The Bridgeport Art Center is located at 1200 W. 35th Street.
Writer Jen Mosier