Last fall, Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art staged a wild show of out-there custom-designed furniture.
Moving into the realm of functional art, the museum filled its rickety warehouse with couches of transparent acrylic, tables that looked like daisies and hard-as-nails chairs bolted together of I-beams and Plexiglas. Most memorably, a giant circular divan rippled with red velvet finger pillows; it was divinely comfortable but, at 13 feet in diameter, way too big for all but the biggest--and most avant-garde--of mansions.
A smaller, tidier exhibition of up-to-the-minute furniture is now on view at Obsidian, a gallery dedicated to fine crafts of all sorts. The idea, says the gallery's Lee Small, was to edit down the first show to "what we thought was accessible, to what people could use. The museum show had things that were whimsical. This is art that translates into people's houses."
That does not mean that you'll find chintz slipcovers or down cushions at Obsidian, or the ornately carved woods favored by grandmothers. The offerings still tend toward the stripped-down and sleek, and toward stainless steel, faux fur, plywood and twisty poles. A few of the works, including a couple of those daisy tables, are even repeats from the earlier show.
Nevertheless, the furniture in the gallery's Contemporary Furniture by 10 Arizona Artists is on a smaller, homier scale than the museum's daring pieces. But it's just as playful.
Micah Dray, for instance, offers up a red coffee table that curves in and out, like two elongated puzzle pieces stuck together. Made of elegant rolled aluminum, it bears the witty name of "Puzzling Table 1." Ezequiel Leoni has made a fairy-tale lamp of forged stainless steel. The opposite of Dray's pared-down simplicity, Leoni's "B.J. Lamp" is a 6-foot-tall flower that sprouts leaves and petals. The lamp pole is an organically curving stem, and the lamp shade i a giant blossom.
The work is every bit as sculptural. Mary Ann Hesseldenz, a Tucson designer who curated this exhibition and helped put together the MOCA show, checks in again with her sleek metal-and-glass modernism. Her "Mia," a long, narrow sofa table, is pure abstraction. Gunmetal gray steel forms a handsome casing, edging the glass tabletop and shooting down to the floor for legs. Underneath the glass, repeating circles inside squares forge a geometric pattern in metal.
The daisy man, Eric Hubbard, specializes in small tables of all kinds; the daisy variety is constructed of inexpensive but cleverly cut birch plywood. The flowered tabletops, resting atop a single curved swathe of flat wood, are cut into petal shapes, and painted shiny black or red. This time around, Hubbard has pushed up the tables' art credentials, inserting tiny colored photographs under glass on top. One naughtily pictures a bare leg peeking out of blue colored cloth.
But Hubbard gets even more interesting results out of speckled concrete. He's still got his mind on posies in "Flower Rook," but not so obviously. The thick concrete tabletop--suitable for an end table--is a fine gray embedded with colored pebbles. Hubbard has polished up the top, and carved a 3-D design into it. (He's even bored a deep hole to serve as a vase for that flower.) The base is a pale blond mahogany, dappled with red-brown markings.
The mahogany ratchets up the luxury value a notch, but Hubbard's forte is in applying smart design--and getting good looks--out of cheap materials. Daniel Istrate also experiments with the affordable, working with hardware store metals and plywood. His "Pole Storage," a repeat of his museum entry, has wooden cubes the exact size of CDs artfully arranged around a twisting pole.
By contrast, Scott Baker, the former proprietor of Metroform photography gallery, sticks with luxury woods. Walnut and ebony have gone into his elegant "Virginia," a long, narrow hall table, reprised from the last show. "Malina" is a circle table meticulously crafted in cherry and ebony. Its three legs fit into notches cut brazenly into the table top, making the construction part of the design.
The museum show was notable for its stylish but devilishly uncomfortable chairs. The gallery version brings back at least one of these, Aaron Dunham's murderous-looking "I-beam Chair," but Hesseldenz's son, teenager Perry Simnowski, debuts with something much more comfy. His bright red "Steven" is an easy chair of sloping vinyl. It has a series of stuffed horizontal rolls cascading downward, ready to support a weary neck or lower back.
Red is the one bright color that seems to please these contemporaries, who otherwise stick to the grays of their steel and the blonde of their woods. The most painterly of the furniture artists is also the only New Yorker, an anomaly in a show meant to lionize Arizona's thriving contemporary scene. Boris Bally has fun with paints colored the vivid shades of street signs. He brushes them onto slick urban metals, where they pool as brightly as the red on a stop sign.
Streetlight yellow and caution black dominate his appropriately named "Transit Chair." Black painted figures--the same folks you see on walk/don't walk signs--hurry across the yellow paint in the back and seat of this chair. White letters on blue, spelling out the word "to" as in "to and fro," spill down the front. This metal chair is probably as uncomfortable as Dunham's, but it's so charming, you can almost forgive it.