tAMPA — The thing about icons is that although they are admirably inspirational, they don't blend in with a crowd and they often make us feel uncomfortable. Which is probably why you will recognize and hail many of the pieces in "A Hundred Years — A Hundred Chairs" at the Tampa Museum of Art though you might not choose many of them to furnish your home. • No matter. You'll love the show.
It begins in the 1890s, with Michael Thonet's bentwood cafe chair, which is among the most successful functional design products in history, referred to as "the chair of chairs." (By the way, the correct pronunciation of his name is Tone-et, not Tho-nay, which I recently learned.) Its minimal art nouveau curves were precursors to the early modernist style exemplified by Viennese architect Josef Hoffman's Sitzmaschine from 1904, a bentwood recliner with angular decorative elements softened by rounded corners. It was made at about the same time and shares a kinship with American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's 1903 chair of painted metal.
Comparisons are easily made thanks to a handsome installation in which the works are displayed on two-tier stands that line the walls and curve around each other in the center of the gallery. This is the first time since the museum opened in 2010 that dividing walls haven't broken up its 5,000 square feet and you can appreciate its majestic sweep and the rollicking nature of the exhibition.
The constant in the show is the tension between earnest and playful in the designs. We see this in Frank Gehry's Wiggle Chair, made of corrugated cardboard during the 1970s when biodegradable and recycling became environmental flash points. But its curls, which replace legs and support a straightforward chair base, give it a rococo charm.
Many of the designers harbor ambivalent feelings about comfort. Harry Bertoia's Diamond Chair, 1952-53, is a beautiful tour de force of slender steel rods woven into a delicate pattern of small diamonds that are formed into one large diamond and molded to produce a gentle depression for a seat. It couldn't be more elegant but, in my own experience, less comfortable.
Charles and Ray Eames, on the other hand, created at about the same time a lounge chair and ottoman of molded wood upholstered in lushly padded leather that isn't as sleek as some of their designs but seems made for naps (again, from my own experience).
There is, too, the frankly awful. Who can forget Eero Aarnio's Ball Chair, so typical of the swinging '60s, a rounded ball of molded white plastic on a pedestal with a little cave carved out and upholstered in hideous red?
This is a historical show, curated to document design, not necessarily to pass judgment on it. All the big names are represented, and whether we consider some products failures or triumphs, they represent their era and more recent ones will possibly evoke memories. I think fondly of collapsing into a reproduction of the 1938 Hardoy Chair made by a group of Argentinian designers. It consisted of two steel rods cunningly bent into loops, then covered with canvas. It was about the simplest thing you could imagine and felt like a hammock.
The chairs come from the Vitra Design Museum, established by an international furniture design company of the same name. This group scratches the surface of its extensive collection of late 19th and 20th century furniture. Copious and good wall text walks us through all the periods and puts the chairs into a historical context so it will be appreciated by those wanting an academic experience. But the visual appeal and variety will appeal to kids, too, with the caveat that younger ones (and by extension their parents) might be frustrated by the accessibility of the chairs that can be neither touched nor sat in. What everyone can sit in are the chairs in the museum lobby, designed by Vitra and copies of the original in the exhibition.
The museum store sells a catalogue with lots of background information and color photographs for $49.95. (The catalogue has some different chairs because Vitra has swapped them out to avoid too much wear and tear as the show travels.) There are also cute miniatures of some of the chairs in the show starting at about $10.
The Tampa Museum of Art, like other bay area museums, has a strong community component and tries to make itself accessible to everyone. The admission is low but if it's a stretch, especially for a family, it's free from 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays. Technically, it's pay what you will but there's no mandated fee and I know the staff and leaders would want financially strapped people to come regardless.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.