Handmaking History

Using the past to create a design narrative

These two chairs illustrate two avenues of my practice but one method of inquiry. Historical research is at the core of my design practice. I research and study historical aspects of a place, time or cultural construct in order to make a sympathetic object. This is a practice of crafting “didactic decorative objects,” making objects that could actually relay a historical moment or sensibility while being in use.

The Melville Chair was crafted for a designer show house in 2017 in Sag Harbor, New York. I researched the history of Sag Harbor and realized that the author Herman Melville had mention the town in his novel Moby Dick. His description was of a motley town that was barely a civilized place. This chair was at the center of a room that was to portray the history of Sag Harbor. I found historic drawings available from the local historical society of small wooden vessels, dories and row boats that would have been indicative to the small harbor. The hand-drawn technical drawings of the boats immediately tell a historic narrative. I then embroidered these drawings on to natural artist canvas and composed a story on the chair that would evoke the movement of boats sailing through the harbor.
In contrast, with the Smocking Chair researching a stitching technique was the tool for understanding the historical narrative of traditional English rural smocking.  This commission of a Smocking Chair was made for the Tatter Blue Library in Brooklyn. Smocking as a technique was selected because of its three-dimensional potential and its prosaic reputation. Thought of as a decorative practice relegated to aunties, smocking originates in the agrarian culture of England and the farmer’s traditional smock or frock. The technique is intriguing in that its beginnings are from a more masculine agrarian construct but developed into a signifier of the women’s Dress Reform Movement of the 1850’s and then the uniform of the artistic avant-garde into the 1900’s. The function of the farmer’s smock evolved into an obsolete form by the height of the industrial revolution because a flowing garment finally proved hazardous working next to heavy machinery.  The Smocking Chair sought to change the notion that smocking was only for children’s dresses, as well as to use a textile technique as a method of establishing a historical narrative within a designed artifact.
The traditional smock was first a series of rectangles which eliminated the need for a pattern for the garment and cut down textile waste. By manipulating the textile and vastly enlarging  the gage of the “tubes,” this would enable the smocking work to serve at furniture scale rather than diminutive dress scale. This larger scale of “tubing” allowed for a stretching of the smocking from a tube“field” where embroidery is applied on top, to the enhanced diamond pattern so that the textile could take the shape of the proposed chair and allow for three dimensional embroidery experimentation. Smocking would be placed where people would interact regardless of the decorative preconception of smocking, and the areas of smocking would receive the traces of inhabitants via the indents created on the smocked areas.
Crafting both chairs in secession demonstrated to me that an illustrative approach like the Melville chair and an embedded-technique approach like the Smocking Chair enables “hand-making history” and are both intriguing and illuminating. Both immediately set a tone in a room with the embroidery work on the chair, and both tell a story.


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