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Telfair says pull up a chair 

Furniture fanatics will love seating object exhibits

There's something going on in Savannah that has attracted major attention to seating objects. We all understand the utility of chairs and sofas to modern mankind, but the diversity of their design recently on display at The Telfair Museums may be emblematic of the cultural diversity and gracious hospitality that distinguish Savannah itself.

This may explain the relevance of three exhibitions of seating furniture and one live performance about seating.

If you missed the stunning exhibition, "The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design," recently on view on the top floor of the Telfair Academy, which featured a wide variety of American seating designs, from vernacular Shaker to twentieth century commercial classics by Charles and Ray Eames, don't despair.

"Sitting in Savannah," skillfully curated by Tania Sammons, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts for the Telfair Museums, is the inaugural display of the Telfair's rich private collection of seating furniture. The objects on display in the Telfair Academy building are from the bequests of Mary Telfair in 1875 and Margaret Gray in 1951 as well as donations and acquisitions over the years.

"Sitting in Savannah," like "The Art of Seating," establishes that in the twenty-first century, we had all just better accept that fine furniture is indeed really great art, and stop quibbling over the distinctions between "decorative arts," "crafts," or, the "lesser arts." Partially displayed as individual works of art in the Telfair Academy's Drawing Room, the seating objects call the viewer into a high society, international dialog opened by the 18th century and carried on through the end of the 19th and involves participants from Philadelphia, New York, France and England.

Three American presidents—Washington, Monroe and Polk—may have sat upon some of these objects when they visited Savannah. Amusingly, a Duncan Phyfe dining chair (ca. 1810) normally found across the hall in the dining room, seems to have been unable to resist the conversation among the objects, and has transported itself into the drawing room, leaving a place setting without a chair at the dining table.

Many objects in this exhibit, such as the stunning curly maple Grecian style Regency chairs and sofa (ca. 1820–30) are featured in the Telfair's Owens-Thomas House, just a few squares away, and aren't to be missed.

Essential to following this scavenger hunt-like exhibition is Sammons's beautiful catalog that can be purchased for a mere dollar. Some items, in the catalog are not on view, such as an unusual Chippendale chair with a cover possibly knitted by Mary Telfair, lead me to wonder what else is in the Telfair's rich private collections that seem to be making more frequent appearances under the recent direction of Lisa Grove, Telfair executive director.

Topping of the seating theme at the Jepson Center, is Jessica Scott Felder's "The High Chairs," (ca. 2012) installation accompanied by her live performances around both seating exhibits. The chair has always been an invitation to socialize, converse, dine, or contemplate; it is the most humanizing form of furniture.

"Sitting in Savannah" continues through October 17, inviting us all a little deeper into the experience of all the Telfair Museums have to offer across the centuries.

The current "New York Accents: The New York Influence on Telfair's Collections" (through July 6) offers a focus on all works and objects with New York connections in the museums' private collections, and furniture takes much of the spotlight.

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To learn more, join members and guests June 20 at 6 p.m. for Tania Sammons' lecture, "From Fancy to High Style: New York furniture at the Telfair," at the Telfair Academy. Visit www.telfair.org

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Paula S. Fogarty

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