Trenton museum exhibit looks at furniture as art

More than ever, we could use a comfy chair to curl up in. The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie is offering a well-furnished living room through March 12 for its Furniture as Art exhibits: Please be Seated: Furniture by Contemporary Designers, and On These Walls: Paintings of Interior Scenes.

Ellarslie Mansion, the former Italianate villa, is a perfect setting for comfort—and yes, you can sit in these chairs; you can touch. The oils from your hands enhance the wood’s patina, said Curator Carol Hill.

The air is redolent of linseed oil, used in both the paintings and the furniture finish, a scent that marries the two. In paintings devoid of humans, furniture becomes the characters, for example a bed in disarray in Ekaterina Popova’s “Sylvie’s Room II.” Why did Sylvie have to leave suddenly?

Louis Russomanno’s “Parlor Chair” lets us know who’s the boss of the house. In a room of grand architectural proportions, a contented cat holds forth on a plush chair, draped with a white fringed throw. The windows and doorways are what might be featured in Architectural Digest magazine. Russomanno made them up, he says, and even went so far as to paint one of his own landscape scenes in the window.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Stories are everywhere, and appropriately David Robinson, whose rustic furniture can be seen from New York’s Central Park and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., to the pergola just outside the front entrance to Ellarslie, has created a “Story Chair.” Made from apple wood, with a back that comes to a peak like something fitting an enchanted forest, it could seat one teller and three little listeners.

Mel Leipzig’s painting “Ibsen Bust, Paul Field Studio, Orleans” is more of an epic novel than a story—one could spend weeks exploring the nuances, gleaning its meanings. The large interior has several seating arrangements, with a short-haired woman, bare feet propped up on the sofa, in the foreground and a young mother and two sons in a second seating area in the rear. The children are reading books—one is wholly absorbed while the other rests the book on his lap, gazing into air, perhaps inventing his own stories. Both groups are surrounded by portraits on the wall and sculpted busts on the shelves—one senses stories for each. At the center is a rocking chair that looks as if its occupant just got up and walked off—a viewer can sense the chair still rocking.

Thomas Kelly, who has several paintings in the show, said “Since most of my paintings are not from direct observation, not from an actual room, I must take the furniture very seriously. I usually have to design it myself and make up the styles, patterns, placement and construction.” Having built simple furniture, he believes “sofas should look comfortable, beds inviting and lamps provide just enough light.”

A beautiful chair or fancy bed can be just as interesting as a figure, he added. “A lot of my interiors are from memories of what I have seen or places I have lived. I have a bow window in ‘The Houseman’ because there was one in my house growing up. I also grew up with hardwood floors and many houseplants so they always seem to find their way into my paintings. People often ask where items in my paintings come from. They are all things I have seen and liked, filed away and just waiting to be painted.”

The contemporary furniture artists include Robert Whitley, 92, of Solebury, Pennsylvania, with his chair for the Smithsonian Institute, appropriately named the Whitley Rocker. Whitley’s commissions include a chess set presented by President Richard Nixon to the Soviet Union (now in the collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia), a re-creation of President John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office desk for the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston, and the restoration of several important pieces at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he has served as master conservator.

The youngest furniture maker here is 20-year-old Jake Rosser, whose “Convertible Table” made from cherry, walnut and maple opens from a cabinet into a coffee table. “Sometimes you need an end table and sometimes you need a coffee table, so why choose one?” said Rosser.

An exhibit of Trenton-area woodworkers would not be complete without work by George Nakashima and his grandson, Satoru “Ru” Amagasu. Considered one of America’s foremost furniture designers, Nakashima valued the relationship between man and tree and published his ideas in The Soul of a Tree in 1981, a woodworker’s reflections on listening to the wood.

Amagasu, who trained with his grandfather, knew how to use the ancient Chinese and Japanese technique of butterfly joints that his grandfather adapted for decorative use.

At opposite ends of the gallery sit two sets of café table and chairs, one made by grandfather and one by grandson. There are similarities and differences—Nakashima closed up blemishes in the wood with butterflies, Amagasu leaves them as is.

Amagasu claims his Conoid chairs—thus named in 1957 by Nakashima, who designed them for his conical shaped studio—are more comfortable than his grandfather’s, and this visitor, who nearly fell into the grandfather’s low chair, can attest to that.

Upcoming events:

• February 16 – Third Thursday “The Nakashima Tradition” with furniture designer, Ru Amagasu – Members and their Guests only

• February 19 – Gallery Walk for “On These Walls” The artists will discuss their paintings

• February 26 – Gallery Walk for “Please Be Seated” the woodworkers will discuss their creations


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal